Los Angeles’ new district attorney announces sweeping reforms on first day

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On his first day leading the country’s largest district attorney’s office, the top prosecutor in Los Angeles County announced a series of sweeping criminal justice reforms aimed at “permanently” changing the course of California’s criminal justice system.

George Gascón, who was elected last month as a reformer, unseating the county’s first Black district attorney, said Monday in a long thread on Twitter that the office will no longer seek the death penalty, which he described as “racist and morally untenable.”

Of the 215 people on death row in Los Angeles County, 85 percent are people of color, he said.

Nor will prosecutors ask for cash bail in misdemeanor, nonserious or nonviolent felony cases — a system that he called a “terrible proxy for risk.”

Prosecutors won’t file sentencing enhancements — like California’s “3 Strikes” law — that can send people to prison for far longer terms.

Gascón said that from 1990 to 1999 — five years after the law was passed — California’s prison population grew from 94,000 to 160,000.

Under his announced reforms, children will no longer be sent to adult court; low-level crimes associated with poverty, addiction, mental illness and homelessness will be diverted to health services; and his office will review cases in which lengthy prison terms were “inconsistent” with sentencing and charging policies.

The review could apply to at least 20,000 people behind bars, Gascón said. Cases in which people committed nonviolent crimes or are older and unlikely to commit more crimes will be given priority, he said.

His office will also establish a conviction integrity unit to review innocence claims, and a separate unit will examine writs of habeas corpus — conviction challenges that defendants can file after having exhausted the appeals process.

If a claim appears to have merit, he said, his office will immediately launch an investigation.

Gascón, a former Los Angeles police officer who oversaw reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s and later led the San Francisco district attorney’s office, said the reforms “are intended to permanently change the course of CA’s criminal justice system & end the era of mass incarceration in Los Angeles & beyond.”

Los Angeles’ police union called the reforms “disturbing” and potentially “disastrous,” saying Gascón is exploring “every avenue possible to release from jail those responsible” for a recent rise in violent crime.

“The new DA talks a good game, but his plans will do nothing but further victimize Los Angeles residents, especially Black and Hispanic residents who currently make up 70% of violent crime victims,” the union said in a statement. “These victims and law-abiding residents lost a voice today while criminals and gang members gained an ally in the prosecutor’s office.”