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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.
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:
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.
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.