Crime victims and law enforcement officials have launched an effort to recall Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, claiming the sweeping changes he has initiated since taking office in December favor the rights of criminals over their victims.
Organizers began to gather the signatures needed to file an intent to recall Saturday, Feb. 27, during a “Victims Vigil” at the downtown Hall of Justice. At least 100 people attended, including many crime victims and Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, an outspoken critic of Gascon’s changes.
Former District Attorney Steve Cooley and former county Supervisor Michael Antonovich are among the former elected officials supporting the recall. The recall effort needs valid signatures from 10% of registered voters in the county, or about 590,000 people, to qualify for the ballot. Organizers say they’ll actually aim for about 200,000 additional signatures since many could be thrown out for various reasons. Elected officials must be in office for at least 90 days before a recall effort can be launched. Gascon was sworn in on Dec. 7.
Gascon has moved to dramatically overhaul the county’s criminal justice system through a series of unilaterally imposed “special directives” since taking office in early December. The policy changes, which include no longer seeking death sentences and abandoning sentencing enhancements that could lead to lifetime imprisonment for all but the most egregious crimes, have drawn fire and legal challenges from Gascon’s own prosecutors and other current and former district attorneys.
Gascon ran as a reformer in his 2020 race against two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey, making it clear that attacking what he called the systemic racism of the criminal justice system would be his top priority. But the group Recall George Gascon says he misled voters on the extent of his planned changes.
“Gascon campaigned and was elected on a platform including no gang enhancements and not seeking the death penalty, so that is not a reason to recall him,” the group says on its Facebook page, which lists 39,500 followers. “However, within minutes of being sworn in, he made other, drastic changes that he did not disclose when campaigning that are letting violent and dangerous criminals back out onto our streets. This is unacceptable. He fooled the voters of LA County and must be removed from office.”
The group’s website accuses Gascon of going far beyond his promised progressive approach to law enforcement.
“He promised a softer and gentler criminal justice system that would reduce incarceration rates for minor offenders and place increased focus on mental health and addiction issues that plague our communities,” the group states on its website. “But the moment he was sworn in as District Attorney, George Gascon instituted a series of directives to the prosecutors in his command that have nothing to do with a progressive approach to prosecution and have everything to do with a radical agenda that ignores victims, disregards the law and endangers the lives and livelihoods of all Angelenos.”
Representatives for the district attorney did not comment directly on the recall effort, as they are not permitted to discuss political matters during work hours, but Gascon has repeatedly defended his directives on eliminating most sentencing enhancements, often citing data on recidivism to back up his case, and pointing out that some crime victims support his changes.
“The pain and trauma of losing a loved one is immeasurable and I recognize and respect that some victims want me to impose the maximum punishment in their case,” Gascon has said. “Research shows that excessive sentencing practices have exacerbated recidivism leading to more victims of crime. Our system of justice can’t continue to rely on policies that create more victims tomorrow simply because some victims want the maximum punishment imposed in their case today.
“I also can’t ignore research showing these views are not shared by a majority of survivors of violent crime. Nonetheless, all survivors agree that they need more support, and that’s why I’m focused on expanding our ability to provide clinical and trauma informed care for victims,” Gascon has said.
Earlier this month, a judge ruled that the district attorney’s move to stop the use of sentencing enhancements violates state law and that “three strikes” enhancements must be charged, a decision Gascon has vowed to appeal. At least two other progressive district attorneys in California have filed briefs in support of Gascon, who argues that his policies represent the will of voters, pointing to the 2 million Los Angeles County residents who voted to elect him. Gascon won his post with 53.5% of the vote.
His new policies are also largely in line with the county Board of Supervisors’ own push for criminal justice reforms, including support for eliminating cash bail.
Tinisch Hollins, California state director for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, told City News Service that any recall effort right now is “irresponsible” and “a dangerous distraction from the crises facing our communities that are a direct result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Factors like stay-at-home orders, isolation and job loss are contributing to the destabilization of individuals, families and entire communities and as a result homicide and other forms of violence are ticking up after many years of steady declines,” Hollins told CNS.
“We have made significant strides in recent years transforming the justice system into one that prioritizes the needs of communities and prevents crime and harm from occurring in the first place. We know what works best and what doesn’t to protect our neighborhoods from harm.
“Research backs up decades of lived experience that the tough-on- crime approach and over-reliance on incarceration only compounds the conditions that create violence, takes resources away from the solutions that work and does nothing to actually prevent crime.
“These are issues that must transcend politics. We must come together as one united community and invest in the most effective strategies for preventing violence and harm, and keeping our families and our children safe,” Hollins said.