District Attorney George Gascón Friday outlined plans to reorganize his office’s gang unit and co-locate prosecutors in police stations in hopes of creating closer community ties.
Gascón’s remarks came during a news conference he co-hosted to promote Assembly Bill 1127, which would eliminate the use of juvenile offenses to impose tougher sentences on adults.
“Overcriminalization of young people leads to higher levels of recividism,” Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor told reporters, citing research showing that the human brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s, leading young people to make more impulsive decisions.
Overhauling the juvenile justice system is one of several initiatives the D.A., since taking office in December, has taken on in the name of creating a more rehabilitative system of justice in Los Angeles County. Doing away with gang and other sentencing enhancements other than for the most serious, violent crimes is another.
In response to questions about reports that he planned to cut some of his units, including the one responsible for prosecuting gang activity, Gascón said prosecutors would soon be working out of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street, Newton and Van Nuys stations.
The D.A.’s office is currently handling about 700 active, serious gang cases, and Gascón promised that he would “hold the people accountable” and continue to prosecute gang crimes, “but we are looking at this through the lens of public health.”
The plan is for the community to play a lead role in how the work takes shape.
“Unless we deal with the root causes of these problems effectively, we will never create a sustainable solution,” Gascón said. “Violence should be treated as a public health problem.”
He declined to say how many, if any, prosecutors might be reassigned or let go, characterizing the change as a realignment and decentralization of the unit’s work.
“We believe that actually we can be more effective by having closer connection with the community rather than working from a centralized basis,” he said.
Eric Siddall, vice president of the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the union representing county prosecutors, said the latest transfers and attrition had left 29 prosecutors working in the gang unit, which previously had nearly 50 people covering cases.
Most of the 700 open cases are murders and require very specialized training to manage, said Siddall, who spent five years as a prosecutor in the gang division.
“You cannot handle the amount of gang murders and attempted murders that are in this county with 29 prosecutors. You just cannot,” he said, arguing that the D.A.’s office would be forced to enlist other prosecutors outside the unit and without sufficient training or experience to handle the caseload.
Siddall also challenged the idea that working closely with law enforcement and the community is anything truly new. He said that prosecutors operating under federal grants from the Community Law Enforcement and Recovery (CLEAR) anti-gang program have long done so, though they were moved out of traditional station posts by previous administrations.
“The remarkable change is that at a time when gang murders are reaching levels that we haven’t seen in 10, 20 years, (Gascón) has decided to cut the gang unit to fulfill a political promise that he’s given to fringe groups,” Siddall said.
“It is typical of what this administration does. It does not make decisions based upon public safety. It does not make decisions about what is good for the case,” the union spokesman said. “It makes decisions based upon what it feels will poll well with the public.”
Gascón was joined during the Friday news conference by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, who co-sponsored AB 1127 with Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward.
“It makes absolutely no sense that a kid who can’t go to prom would have an action … being taken into consideration for a `strike’ once (they’re) older,” Santiago said, referring to California’s three-strikes law. “This means somebody doing 25 years to life in jail. It makes absolutely no sense.”
Though juvenile delinquency proceedings are not criminal proceedings, strikes in the juvenile system are currently counted the same as an adult strike. AB 1127 would allow a juvenile adjudication to be vacated rather than being considered as a serious or violent felony conviction during future sentencing.
Gascón said Black and Latino youth are more likely to end up with a strike on their record and more likely to have that juvenile strike applied in future sentencing.
“It creates further destruction in our communities,” he said.
The bill will be heard by the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee next week.