Los Angeles County District Attorney-Elect Promises Progressive Criminal Justice Reform

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Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón speaks at a Los Angeles County Democratic Party news conference outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón speaks at a Los Angeles County Democratic Party news conference outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

The Los Angeles district attorney's office oversees the largest jail system and prosecutor’s office in the U.S., and it now has a new boss — George Gascón.

Gascón, a Democrat, unseated incumbent Jackie Lacey in this month's election, and progressives are calling his election a victory for criminal justice reform. But Gascón received little to no support from the law enforcement establishment during his campaign, and he will face challenges implementing his agenda.

This election was a referendum on criminal justice reform, Gascón says, and whether law enforcement supported him or not, they will have to work together to bring about change within the criminal justice system.

“I think the reality is that the public in the state as well as in the county has spoken very clearly about two things: We don't want to go back to the past. And we actually want to move forward into a different reality,” he says. “And I think that's a mandate that law enforcement has to listen to loud and clear.”

Gascón campaigned on a number of issues, including a commitment to not pursue the death penalty and stop the practice of trying minors as adults. He says those issues are two he will seek to address on day one.

“I've gotten lawyers calling me that they're heading into the sentencing portion of a death penalty case even before I get sworn in, so that is something that I want to address because it's easier to put a stop to some of those cases than to unwind them down the road,” he says. “We have a lot of ongoing cases involving kids as young as 14 years of age that are being prosecuted as adults.”

Reaching any of these goals will involve working both with law enforcement and the criminal justice activists that supported his campaign, Gascón says.

“You have to acknowledge that there is going to be different ways to look at a problem,” he says. “And one of the things that I tell people all the time, and I did that during my entire campaign, I will never compromise on principle, but I will hear you out and we will try to work on process where we can.”

Gascón says he understands these issues firsthand. Growing up in a poor neighborhood outside of LA, he says “the police were not our friends.” That experience taught him that people don’t want to be harassed by the police, but they also don’t want to be made victims.

“There has to be a more nuanced approach to our work and recognizing that community safety is a collective responsibility and that collective responsibility includes the definition of what community safety looks like,” he says. “It cannot be one that is simply engineered by the police and prosecutors or police unions. It needs to be engineered by all of us together.”

Gascón’s victory is seen as a progressive shift, not only for Los Angeles County, but nationally where there’s been a real push in places like Philadelphia and Texas to end mass incarceration. He says reaching that goal starts with acknowledging systemic racism and the simple fact that Black and Brown people are treated differently by the criminal justice system.

“We have destroyed entire communities. We've destroyed generations of people within communities, and this is a day of reckoning now,” he says. “My goal is certainly in my little corner of the world here in LA County is to acknowledge the harm, acknowledge that it exists, and then bring people to the table and make them partners, equal partners.”

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Bentley. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 16, 2020.


Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.


Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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