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LA's New District Attorney Earns Pushback And Praise Over Justice Reforms

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Los Angeles County has a new top prosecutor. In the November election, George Gascon campaigned as a progressive reformer. He unseated LA's incumbent district attorney. Even though he's been in office for just a few weeks, he's upending how the nation's largest local prosecutor's office administers justice. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: During the campaign, George Gascon promised that, if elected, he'd bring monumental change to LA's justice system. True to his word, at his inauguration last month, he came out swinging against tough-on-crime advocates, the bail industry and law enforcement unions. For decades, he said...

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GEORGE GASCON: They sold us a false narrative that more police, tougher penalties and more people locked up in prison made us safer.

FLORIDO: Gascon announced a long list of reforms - no more charging minors as adults, no more death penalty or cash bail. And in a major move, he said LA prosecutors would stop seeking most sentencing enhancements, which tack on years or decades in prison if a crime is committed under special circumstances, like as part of a gang or as a third strike. He said those policies are ineffective and discriminatory.

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GASCON: Three strikes and the flood of enhancements that we created severely exacerbated racial disparities in our criminal justice system. The amount of harm these policies have caused cannot be overstated.

FLORIDO: Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles says the reforms landed like a bomb because the LA District Attorney's Office has long been a national tough-on-crime leader.

FERNANDO GUERRA: No previous DA challenged the way law enforcement chose to implement their duties. Gascon is saying, no, you must change. And that has created tremendous amount of resistance, not only by law enforcement agencies, but even internally within deputy DAs.

FLORIDO: Soon after Gascon took office, the union representing his prosecutors sued him, arguing the new DA's directive to end sentencing enhancements violates state laws that require them. Eric Siddall is the union's vice president.

ERIC SIDDALL: Just because Mr. Gascon, as the elected DA, feels that certain laws are bad policy, it doesn't authorize him to violate the law or direct his prosecutors to also violate the law.

FLORIDO: Gascon is also facing resistance from DAs in other parts of the state and from some crime victim advocates. Kathleen Cady is a retired LA prosecutor who's been representing victims' families in court.

KATHLEEN CADY: Many of the cases I'm representing them on are cases where their loved one was murdered. And these families, over and over again, are feeling like, we thought we had someone who had our back.

FLORIDO: She argues the problem is that Gascon is issuing blanket policies that give prosecutors no discretion to be tougher on truly heinous criminals.

But Gascon, who used to be top prosecutor in San Francisco, is also being applauded by activists, reformers and other progressive DAs. Melina Abdullah is a leader of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which campaigned heavily against the previous DA, Jackie Lacey. They saw her as too chummy with law enforcement unions. Abdullah says Gascon and DAs in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia are recognizing how tools like sentencing enhancements institutionalize racism.

MELINA ABDULLAH: They're basically saying prosecute the crime the person is actually on trial for. Don't prosecute people for the neighborhoods in which they live, for being Black, essentially. And that's what enhancements really do.

FLORIDO: She says activists are pleased with Gascon's apparent commitment to racial equity and to police accountability. It's why voters, influenced by a year of racial justice protests, chose him, she says, and why he shouldn't bow to pressure.

ABDULLAH: Gascon is beholden to the people who voted him in.

FLORIDO: In an interview, Gascon said his positions on justice have evolved since he was an LA beat cop in the '80s. He said he is still haunted by the role he played in a system that's disproportionately locked up African Americans and Latinos.

GASCON: I understand that I was part of a larger system, but that still doesn't remove me from feeling responsible. And that is why I am so committed to approaching community safety in a way that doesn't do the harm that I would say the majority of us who were in the system continue to do.

FLORIDO: He says he expected pushback from his prosecutors because many believe firmly in the power of tough sentencing. But he says tools like sentencing enhancements are a legacy of the tough-on-crime era of the '80s and '90s.

GASCON: Prosecutors worked for generations without them, and they certainly did not feel that they were unethical because they were not trying to seek more incarceration. Look - I mean, this is a political game.

FLORIDO: He says he has no plans to change course. In fact, he hopes the size and clout of his office will influence other prosecutors across the country.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.