District Attorney George Gascón’s battle for criminal justice reform in Los Angeles County, where long outdated policies have resulted in the largest jail system in the nation, had a setback this week that can’t be ignored. 

Back in December, newly elected Gascón announced — just minutes after being sworn in — sweeping changes to the county’s criminal justice system and its overwhelming bias against people of color and people in poverty. His new policies were neither radical nor a surprise — he had openly campaigned against racial disparities in the system and for an end to mass incarceration. But the backlash to his reforms came swiftly. And from his own department. 

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), an organization that represents deputy D.A.s in the county, filed a lawsuit challenging Gascon’s new reforms. And on Monday, a judge granted their request to halt key aspects of the new sentencing enhancement policy.

The enhancements, many of which were born of politically convenient “tough on crime” stances in the 1980s and 1990s, pose rigid sentencing requirements based not only on convictions, but also on circumstances weighed against people who are poor. For example, some sentence enhancements require a longer incarceration if a person has a prior conviction that resulted in jail or prison time. But a wealthy person is less likely to have spent time behind bars, even if convicted.   

According to a 2016 study by Public Policy Institute of California, just under 80 percent of people who were incarcerated in the state had some kind of enhancement added to their sentences. This situation will likely persist barring a Gascón win on appeal. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are currently almost 10,800 individuals in California facing charges subject to sentencing enhancements.

Gascón expected a backlash and is not giving up the fight. “More than two million people in Los Angeles County voted for a system of justice based on science and data, not fear and emotion,” he said in a statement following the ruling, pointing to “a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety.”  

The reforms are critical, especially considering the enormous impact the D.A.’s office can have on individual lives. Although at election time, the position of district attorney is considered “down ballot” from more prominent local posts such as mayor, city council person, or supervisor, the D.A. can have far more direct impact on people's lives.  

In 1940, U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson (later a justice on the Supreme Court), said “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”   

That still holds true today. The district attorney, as the county’s prosecutor, decides:   

  • Whether a person is prosecuted 
  • What crime a person is charged with
  • What crimes to prioritize
  • Whether or not the death penalty is sought  

Gascón’s predecessors have used their power to, all too often, give law enforcement officers a pass when it comes to highly questionable police uses of force, including fatal shootings. The new D.A. has instead called for the creation of a police use-of-force review board made up policing experts, civil rights attorneys, and community members to review current fatal cases and recommend past cases that should be reopened.   

He also said his office would no longer seek the death penalty, transfer children to adult court, or request cash bail for misdemeanors and non-serious felonies.  

The ACLU Foundation of Southern California certainly favors these changes and filed an amicus brief on the side of the D.A. in the lawsuit.  

But we are hoping for more, including a clearly defined “decline to charge” list of offenses that should not go through the criminal justice system at all. Included in these would be charges against individuals for actions that are a result of mental health disorders. As noted in the ACLU’s “Injustice in L.A.” report that came out last year, “Prosecuting these charges in a criminal setting does more harm than help to the individuals involved.”   

Handling these cases in alternative ways — such as civil proceedings, traffic court, and community-based programs — would not only likely be more effective, they would also relieve the strain on district attorney resources and save taxpayer money.   

We also call on Gascón to create and implement an immigration policy that would take into account unjust collateral consequences to non-citizens. The law already requires prosecutors to consider those circumstances during plea negotiations, however the D.A.’s office has not developed the policies and trainings needed to make this a reality.   

But the newly announced reforms and the fight against sentence enhancements are a refreshing, promising start.    

Summer Lacey is director of criminal justice at the ACLU of Southern California.