Is Prosecution Changing? What the New Los Angeles DA's Agenda Indicates for the Future of Top Cops

Los Angeles deserves a new District Attorney who will make our neighborhoods safer, hold police accountable to the communities they serve, and reform our justice system so it works for everyone. I have reduced violent crime in every leadership position I've held while pioneering reforms to reduce racial disparities and end mass incarceration.

George Gascon, Newly Elected Los Angeles County District Attorney

Last Tuesday morning Los Angeles County swore in its new District Attorney. Within the first two hours of his administration, George Gascon issued nine Special Directives which describe his office's policies. The directives touch on a large span of issues that have been controversial in the criminal justice system. 

The directives -- found here -- are bold. One directive eliminated cash bail on misdemeanors and low-level non-violent offenses. Another ended the practice of levying sentence enhancements against those with prior felony convictions. Gascon ended the practice of death penalty sentencing, as well as the practice of charging juvenile misdemeanors. His office will no longer charge juveniles as adults. Prosecutors in his office will decline charges on several low-level misdemeanors unless some aggravating factors are present. Gascon created a conviction integrity unit to examine the potential of prior false convictions. He also announced plans to resentence individuals who are currently serving excessive sentences. 

The breadth and depth of these policy responses is truly impressive coming from someone who was a former District Attorney in San Francisco and a former police officer.

"For decades tough-on-crime advocates, the private prison industry, the bail industry and law enforcement unions -- all organizations that profit off taking away your liberties -- they sold us a false narrative that more police, stiffer penalties and more people locked up in prison made us safer,"

George Gascon, in his inauguration speech.

It would be easy to write Gascon off as a California anomaly--but he's not alone. Progressive prosecutors won races in Texas, Ohio, Hawaii, Florida, and Colorado. This class of prosecutors vows to focus on diversion from prison, a move away from oppressive pre-trial procedures like cash bail and detention, and an intentional focus on juvenile justice as a way to prevent repeat offenders. 

This new wave of prosecution is indicative of a shift in the mindset of law enforcement nationwide. Most of them agree that the traditional tough-on-crime approach to prosecution and law enforcement has failed. They are ready to try something new. While the criminal justice system is often where people who struggle with addiction and mental illness end up, it does not have to be their last stop.

The District Attorney is one of the most powerful people in any given community, and above you can see why. Gascon didn't need to go to the legislature to get bills passed. He didn't need to get a vote of the people. County DA's face extremely little accountability to any power structure as they do not report to anyone. They are elected by the people, and they are responsible to the people. If there is an ethics concern, they can be investigated by their state's Bar Association. If there is probable cause that a DA has committed a crime they can be investigated by the state's Attorney General. But largely, a DA can set their policies and charging priorities how they want without any oversight. So--for example--while it is still legal to sentence someone to death in Los Angeles County, George Gascon is saying that his office will not put the death penalty in front of a jury.

As state legislatures and voters grapple with difficult policy considerations centering on criminal justice reform, we should not forget about an enormously important factor in the equation -- the DA. It takes someone brave to step away from the expectations of their profession and try to forge a new path. This is especially true when the path of punishment and retribution has been so entrenched in human history

Some say progressive prosecution is nothing but window dressing so that DAs can continue garnering votes, while also still maintaining a traditional law enforcement mindset. But reformers and advocates cannot continue to ignore the central role of the prosecution in the criminal justice system. As long as the people are pushing for change, and prosecutorial candidates are responding, reform at the DAs office is just as important as it is at the ballot box or at the capitol. 

In Oklahoma, DA races historically do not have a lot of competition. In 2018, 19 of 27 races across the state drew only one candidate. Democratic challenger Cory Williams lost to incumbent Laura Austin Thomas in Logan and Payne Counties. Williams promised to be fiscally responsible, and reform the "broken system." Williams lost by 4,400 votes in a largely rural and heavily Republican district. 

Republicans Tammy Westcott and Ben Fu both challenged incumbent Steve Kunzweiler in Tulsa County in 2018. Each of them focused on the importance of diversion courts and the importance of sending fewer people to prison. Fu received 29% of the vote, Westcott 28.3%, and Kunzweiler 40%. The top two went on to a runoff where Kunzweiler prevailed. These results may seem expected and disappointing if you're hoping that progressive prosecution is making its way to Oklahoma, but they are more heartening than they seem. This was the first DA election in Oklahoma where candidates were actively discussing reform and qualified, capable, reform-minded challengers were drawn in two of Oklahoma's DA districts. During the 2020 election, Allan Grubb, the DA for Pottowatomie and Lincoln Counties supported State Question 805 which would have eliminated sentence enhancements for non-violent felonies. With national attention on law enforcement and criminal justice reform, Oklahoma will see more prosecutors' races focus on these issues.