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New Los Angeles County Prosecutor Makes Big Criminal Justice Reform Moves

A mans hands in handcuffs behind his back
By Andrew Leonatti on December 17, 2020 12:49 PM

One of the biggest trends in criminal justice reform over the last several years has been the election of "progressive" prosecutors in counties across the country. So-called "law and order" or "tough on crime" prosecutors who dominated elections in some of America's most liberal counties have been sent packing.

And on Election Day 2020, activists scored their biggest win yet, electing George Gascón district attorney of Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the country. Gascón defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey, a tough-on-crime prosecutor criticized by activists for being too cozy with police and her pursuit of death penalty cases.

Gascón took office on December 7 and has already announced a full slate of reforms.

Overhauling the System

The new prosecutor wasted no time, issuing a series of directives his first day in office that will dramatically reshape the prosecution of crimes in L.A. County. Gascón announced that his office will:

  • No longer seek the death penalty and attempt to resentence convicts who are facing a death sentence to a life sentence
  • Stop prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults
  • Reopen dozens of investigations into police shooting cases
  • End the use of sentencing enhancements, including those for gang involvement or prior convictions
  • Evaluate for resentencing the cases for people who have already served 15 years or more in prison, who are 60 or older, who were juveniles prosecuted as adults, and more
  • Not prosecute certain low-level misdemeanors, such as driving without a license or with a suspended license, minor in possession of alcohol, drug possession, trespassing, and many more

An End to Cash Bail

The biggest and most controversial change involves the end of the cash bail system. An order from Gascón instructs his office to treat people who are arrested with the presumption that they should be released before trial.

The change will not apply to those facing murder or other violent felony charges, but prosecutors will otherwise ask judges not to set bail. In California, a judge will still be able to set bail if they desire, regardless of prosecutors' wishes.

"Today, there are hundreds of people languishing in jails, not because they represent a danger to our community but because they can't afford to purchase their freedom," Gascón said when announcing the new policy. But the move has drawn criticism from veteran prosecutors, police, and crime victims' advocates.

What Does it Mean?

Right now, the changes are a big deal for those who are arrested or were recently convicted in Los Angeles County, but that's as far as Gascón's authority reaches. Many of his moves are in line with other progressive prosecutors, who have chosen to push the limits of "prosecutorial discretion" to simply refuse to prosecute some offenses.

Gascón's win in a county with more than 10 million people and how his time in office goes will likely have a large effect on whether more reform-minded prosecutors can win their elections.

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