In Los Angeles County, District Attorney George Gascón Has Big Plans for Reshaping the Criminal Justice System

George Gascón has promised sweeping reforms as the district attorney of Los Angeles County. (Photo: Bryan Chan)

The newly elected DA announced a series of systemic reforms that include ending cash bail and utilizing more diversion programs for low-level charges.

By Matt Keyser

When George Gascón was sworn in as Los Angeles County district attorney in December, he announced a series of reforms that would reshape the criminal justice system of the largest county in the United States.

He called for the end of cash bail for all misdemeanor and non-violent, non-serious felony crimes. “Money is a terrible proxy for risk posed to society,” he said.

He announced anyone charged with low-level misdemeanors for the first time will be diverted and receive help rather than jailed. “In the ’80s and ’90s, America defunded public housing and mental health. We turned public health problems into criminal ones. The results were disastrous,” he said.

He promised to stop enforcing California’s three strikes law, end use of the death penalty, and create a review board to hold law enforcement officials more accountable.

“Taken together, these sweeping reforms are intended to permanently change the course of California’s criminal justice system and end the era of mass incarceration in Los Angeles and beyond,” he said on Dec. 7, the day he was sworn into office.

For Gascón, now 66, the reforms are a culmination of a 40-plus-year law enforcement career that began as an officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, where he rose to assistant chief. Gascón had a brief stint as the police chief of Mesa, Arizona, before then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom—the current governor of California—lured him away to lead the San Francisco Police Department.

Throughout those years—a time when law enforcement took a tough-on-crime approach to policing and escalated the drug war—Gascón said he saw the damage mass incarceration had on communities, especially those of color.

By the time he was appointed district attorney of San Francisco County in 2011, replacing then-DA Kamala Harris who was elected California attorney general, he said he came to the point he realized “a lot of what we were doing was actually more harmful.”

He used his new role to help reduce violent crime in the county and decrease the jail population by 30 percent. He began his calls to end cash bail. He created the state’s first bureau to investigate police misconduct.

He retired from the San Francisco DA’s office after two terms to return home to Los Angeles and spend more time with his family, including his sickly mother. But it wasn’t long before he was recruited to run for DA in Los Angeles County, which he won in a runoff.

For Gascón, it was a return home to a county that he said was littered with outdated policies that were negatively affecting public safety and continued to harm communities.

“I care deeply for this community, not only as a professional, but I care deeply on a personal level,” Gascón told NPPJ. “And one of the things that bothered me … so much incarceration, so much hate, the division between law enforcement and the community.

“You had a high number of police shootings, some of them with very questionable circumstances, and no accountability for that.”

Gascón has pledged to reopen four deadly police shootings that previously weren’t prosecuted, including the death of Brendon Glenn, a mentally ill homeless man who was shot in the back.

When deciding whether to run, Gascón said, “It was like all of the indicators for me were going in the wrong direction.”

Gascón spoke with NPPJ about his systemic reforms, using data to drive change, and the ongoing work to improve the criminal justice system. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NPPJ: What is your big vision as DA for one of the largest counties in America? What are you supporting? What are you acting on? What are going to be your big accomplishments at the end of this term when you’re up for reelection?

George Gascón: My biggest goal and what I hope to do is show that we can reduce mass incarceration and enhance public health and community health and safety. I don’t believe that incarcerating people at the levels that we have for the last four decades has necessarily made us safer. And I think there’s plenty of evidence and there’s a lot of science and data to show that you can actually provide for a healthier community with lesser incarceration. That would be my big umbrella.

There are layers to this. We’re talking about juvenile justice. We’re talking about eliminating the death penalty. Eliminating sentencing enhancements that have really escalated our incarceration rates. Looking at systemic racism. Looking at police accountability. But that all cascades from the very top concept, which is what I strongly believe and there’s a lot of evidence to show that we can incarcerate much less than we do today and actually increase public safety by doing so.

NPPJ: Something that makes you unique is your background as a beat cop and you rose to the top. Often the issue of criminal justice reform is viewed as antagonistic to policing. But you’re a living example that it’s not necessarily. What did you learn in your time in law enforcement that drove you to pursue reforms today?

GG: I came through policing and I tell people that I have my own personal evolution. I was certainly in policing during the peak, if you will, of mass incarceration in the ‘90s and in the early 2000s. I realized the more that I looked at our work, that I looked at other systems, and I became more educated in the system, that we were actually doing more harm. And rather than enhance safety, we were actually creating greater insecurity by the levels of incarceration that we were engaging as a nation. And the over-policing of African American communities—we recognized that there is embedded systemic racism in what we did. So for me, it was an evolution of actually having been into the system and getting to the point where I came to the conclusion that a lot of what we were doing was actually more harmful.

As a former beat cop for the Los Angeles Police Department, George Gascón said he saw first hand how punitive ‘tough on crime’ policing often fails to make our communities safer.” (Photo: @GeorgeGascon/Twitter)

If you look at our recidivism rates, I think is a great benchmark of how we’re creating greater insecurity. When you look at our recidivism rate and you compare that to the recidivism rates in other industrialized democracies around the world, what you see is that our failure rate is very high. And I tell people recidivism rate is failure rate.

I often use the example that if you walk up to an airline counter and the clerk told you that the aircraft you were going to board had a 70 percent likelihood of crash landing you probably would not jump in that airplane. But we in our criminal justice system have invested billions and billons of dollars over the last several decades in the system that increasingly has a higher failure rate. And the failure rate causes more victimization.

One of the arguments that I’m constantly having in my office today is you may have a victim that is really traumatized, and we want to get the most punishment for the offender in this particular case. An argument that I make to my staff and other people in our community is that, as people’s lawyers, we’re not only concerned about the well-being of the victim that we have in front of us—we clearly are and we have to do things that we can in order to mitigate harm—but we also need to be concerned about future victims. We are engaging in a practice that is likely to create a trail of victims in the future. We’re actually being neglectful. And our obligation is to provide for the safety of our community.

So my argument is that the reform or reimagining our system, quite frankly, it’s not contrary to public safety; to the contrary, it is very much in tune with public safety.

NPPJ: You hit on something really critical here about taking a holistic view of harms inflicted by the criminal justice system and how it can help people heal. It seems like one of the challenges is breaking through to people to explain a lot of this. For example, whenever something goes wrong and someone is out on bail and commits a crime, that makes headlines. But we don’t often hear the story of the flipside of someone who is detained pretrial who didn’t need to be there, and the harms that are inflicted on that person and their community and their family by this system.

Do you have a sense of how we can help those narratives break through into the mainstream and talk about how reforms help people and heal people rather than keeping them behind bars?

GG: I think it’s clearly a challenge. It is much easier to pick the extreme case—and they happen, by the way, whether you have a reformer DA or you have an unreformer DA. In fact, I tell people that when you compare crime rates in Los Angeles County versus San Francisco during the time that myself and my predecessor were both DAs—where about seven years that we were overlapped—violent crime in LA County went up by about 25 or 26 percent. During that time, violent crime in San Francisco went down. And we incarcerated about a quarter of the rate.

So there’s data to show that there is no correlation between high levels of incarceration and reduction in crime. And in fact, if you’re looking over a long period of time, what you see is recidivism rates that are created by this very punitive measure actually create a trail of increased likelihood of insecurity down the line.

Ninety-five percent of people who we incarcerate are going to come out, and we’re not putting them in a place where they’re likely to be rehabilitated; we’re putting them in a place that they’re likely to increase their criminal-genic factors simply because of the structure of our prison system in this country. Which, by the way, that’s a completely separate conversation, but one that needs to be had.

There are other places where the prison system is really about rehabilitation. Ours is about punishment. And we pay the price for that in terms of insecurity. But I think what has to occur and is clearly a challenge is that we need to continue to educate the public. How do you develop an elevator pitch to convey very complex and nuanced scenarios in what really needs to be a 30-second pitch?

And I have to tell you, I’m the first one to admit that I still have a hard time doing that. But we have to figure out a way to do so because we also need to be able to communicate and connect with the majority of our population.

NPPJ: How do you use data as a DA to show people the facts that are going on behind the scenes rather than letting anecdotes dominate the conversation?

GG: One of the things is that we really tried to put a lot of data out there. For instance, when I mentioned to you that 95 percent of the people that we touch are coming back, but the criminogenic factors go up. I often talk about the fact that there are studies that show that for every additional year of incarceration you have a 4 to 7 percent increase of likelihood of reoffending, so the more incarceration you have.

We also talk, of course, in the other end of the spectrum that people who have been in prison for over 20 years, especially older people, are very unlikely to reoffend—that their criminogenic needs go down significantly. But the price we pay to get there, to get somebody into a senior age, is millions and millions of dollars. So it’s obviously not the path that we want to continue to have. That’s not a path to safety. But also on the other end of the spectrum, we’re incarcerating senior citizens that could be released. We could have a much more meaningful process of integrating those people and creating safety than it is by keeping them in prison.

But absolutely data is something that I use extensively. And frankly, this is where foundations and a lot of the researchers and research universities are really helpful in working with people like myself and others in this space to continue to drill down and to learn, so that we have not only the data going forward to practice, but the data that will also inform our conversations.

NPPJ: And this really is shifting the way that we think about the criminal justice system. It’s not just about convincing voters and residents, but you also have to convince ADAs and police officers to shift how they think about this. How do you overcome the institutional barriers to reform—employees who are reluctant to think about this differently? Can you convince people to change their outlook, or do you have to replace staff and let the work speak for itself? 

GG: I think it’s a little bit of all. I think there are some people that are really reasonable and if you provide them with information that is convincing to them, that they can review, they will shift. We saw a lot of that in San Francisco. I had a lot of hardcore prosecutors that over time became strong advocates of reform. It took time. And it always takes time to shift the culture in an organization. I think there are some people that eventually are going to deselect themselves. This is not what they want to do—they don’t want to be bothered with facts.

Unfortunately, we’re increasingly living in a time where the social divides in our country are so deep. There are some people that automatically associate things like science and health with a political tendency, if you will. It’s very hard to overcome that for people that are really convinced that they’re not going to pay attention to science, that they don’t believe in data, and they believe this is all fake. That is a problem.

And then, frankly, we get into shifting the culture of the organization as you have an evolution of personnel. People are retiring, people are leaving, and you’re bringing in new people. You have to make sure that your recruitment and your hiring and training process speak to the goal that you’re trying to achieve.

NPPJ: Do you find that there are differences in people’s attitudes in San Francisco compared to LA?

GG: I don’t think so. I think it’s just a matter of time. I think that people who come into the world of prosecution generally tend to be a little more politically conservative. Even through law school and their own upbringing, they have come to the conclusion that punishment is the way to achieve safety. I think that is very consistent. It’s really interesting.

This is where politics unfortunately play a role here. If you look at California, it has 58 counties. And even though we’re a blue state, by all accounts, when you look at the elected DAs around the state, I believe 54 or 55 are registered Republicans. Many are extremely conservative. So it’s something that I don’t think is unique to San Francisco. I think that LA and San Francisco share a lot of commonalities when it comes to prosecutors; maybe not when it comes to the general population. So dealing with a culture inside the office is going to be similar.

I think the difference for me between LA and San Francisco—in San Francisco I came after a district attorney who, for her time, was very progressive. I know people often look back at her and say, “She wasn’t progressive.” I think you have to actually contextualize. There are things that we’re doing today that would have been unheard of 15 or 20 years ago.

But when you compare that to the person that I succeeded in LA County, she was extremely conservative. The practice of the office was very draconian—one of the most carceral counties in the state, a lot of death penalty cases. Where in San Francisco, for instance, we haven’t had a death penalty case for generations—going back to the early ‘80s.

So I didn’t have to go in San Francisco and convince people that the death penalty was not a good thing. Right here, you’re still fighting that fight. I’m still having death penalty cases coming right down the line. In some cases, unfortunately, we’ve had juries already handed in a death penalty sentence. It’s hard to unwind that. How do you deal with all this stuff? Those were things I did not have to do in San Francisco. But a lot of that is really the product of the culture of the elected DAs before me.

NPPJ: What’s it mean to you overseeing the district attorney’s office where you grew up? 

GG: Obviously there’s an emotional attachment to this. I care deeply about every community that I served and I care deeply about our work. But LA is home. LA is where my kids were born, where they grew up, where my father died, where my mother still lives. LA for me is more than just a town—it’s my home.

I care deeply for this community, not only as a professional but I care deeply on a very personal level. And one of the things that really bothered me, quite frankly, and why I decided to run for DA here was what I saw as a continuation of outdated practices in public safety that continued to create so much harm to our communities—so much incarceration, so much hate, the division between law enforcement and the community. Which is the case around the country, but in LA it really came to a boiling point where you had Black Lives Matter demonstrating every week in front of the DA’s office asking for her ouster. You had a high number of police shootings, some of them with a very questionable set of circumstances, no accountability for that. And crime going up. So it’s like all of the indicators for me were going in the wrong direction.

Homelessness is obviously a problem all around the country and certainly in all the wealthy West Coast cities. It was the case in San Francisco. But homelessness in LA is completely out of proportion to anywhere else in terms of ratio, not only the raw numbers. And so much of it can be attributed to practices of the district attorney’s office and the criminal justice system, where you’re criminalizing people for being poor. And that increases the likelihood that they end up without a house, because they lose their employment, they lose their ability to get public health because of their criminal record, over very low-level offenses.

Sometimes, quite frankly, people are being detained pretrial for days and that’s enough for them to lose their safety net, which is employment because they have no other safety net. They come back home, they cannot pay rent, they get evicted, and now they’re on the street. And sometimes it’s the entire family. So much of that is being caused by the criminal justice system in LA.

Those are things that really motivated me to go through this very arduous process. Not only running the very brutal political race—the race continues every day. I’m in the office and I’m still having to fight every day to try to implement things that most other people around the world will look at and say, “Well that’s even mild.” But in LA they seem to be just like I’m doing something horrendous for safety, which it’s very disheartening to see the lack of awareness around the criminal justice space in this county.

NPPJ: I always kind of have joked that one of the things standing in the way of criminal justice reform is a show like Law & Order, where people see the bad guy, and then the prosecutors get them, and then justice comes to the bad guy. And that’s just what life is like in a DA’s office. But we know that things are more nuanced than that. And so I always wonder when I talk to lawyers, if you could make an episode of Law & Order based around something you’ve seen or something you’ve experienced that would present a different view of things that you think would be helpful, educational to people, what would it be? What have you seen in your time in a DA’s office you wish other people could see?

GG: We see this is a daily occurrence. We see that sometimes people that are mentally ill are being sent to prison or jails, that they get no treatment. Now we’re seeing sometimes people are dying of COVID, others inside the jails are coming out and infected family members and other communities. We see people that are being held in pretrial confinement purely because they cannot afford to pay bail even though we’re trying to get rid of money bail. We see the harm that we sometimes do to very young people by criminalizing them very early on for low-level offenses. Which, by the way, in other communities will never have any criminal consequences, but a poor community of color will lead to a criminal consequence. And this happens every day in our courtrooms. It happens every day. And you don’t see that in any TV show, right?

There’s no question that by and large mainstream Hollywood for years has, I don’t think intentionally but I think by default, supported a concept of the criminal justice system that is very harmful to our community.

NPPJ: When you propose or implement these big changes of reform, there’s obviously going to be pushback. How do you keep your message consistent that this is needed and the right move?

GG: You have to be very, very focused. You have to develop a hard shell around you, because you have to be willing to take personal attacks, whether they’re warranted or not. You have to, on a daily basis, deal with misinformation and understand that some level of misinformation is going to go on. And you cannot deal with it all the time because you will go crazy.

But I would say that having a very, very clear focus and a willingness to continue to listen and to evolve. But understanding what the end game is, and the end game is to create a safer community. And part of that is to win systemic racism and over-incarceration and the abuses of the past and to hold the system accountable—that the system has to play by the rules. When we have police officers that are lying when they make an arrest, when we have a police officer using excessive force, they need to be held accountable. And you have to really deeply believe that this is necessary, and then the price of the process makes sense.

I think if you’re not convinced—and I say that not only for me but others that are in the space—unless you are truly convinced that this is the right thing, because you have studied and you understand that not only—I don’t want to say it in a dogmatic, almost cultish way, because obviously I’m not a supporter of that type of thing—but just simply because you understand the science behind this and then you’re willing to do what it takes. That’s the only way I think you can be successful.

I think that if you don’t have a very hard shell around you, if you take things personal, this becomes very debilitating very fast.

NPPJ: Absolutely. It seems like you’re in a real tough fight but you’re happy about it and it’s a good fight to have.

GG: I’m not so sure that I’m happy about it, but it’s the right fight to have. I would prefer not to have the fight, I would prefer to have people that agree to work around their differences to try to achieve the best for our community, but obviously that is not the case. There’s too many monetary answers or political interests here that really are part of the process as well.

So knowing that it’s the right thing to do, knowing that we’re heading in the right direction, that history is on our side, that’s what really motivates me, the sort of fuel for me. But I would be kidding if I told you that I enjoy the fight every day. They look at you and I say, “Man, do I really need to do this?” But then I immediately respond, “Yes, I do.” And the “yes, I do” is because I believe in what I’m doing.