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George Gascón for DA: A Case in Three Laws

What does reform mean to the candidates? Not much, in Lacey’s case.

Source: Flickr

If you’ve passed by the Hall of Justice on any Wednesday afternoon for the past two and a half years, the scene is familiar: Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles and their allies holding space for the families of victims of police violence, chants of “Jackie Lacey Must Go,” signs with the hashtag #ByeJackie2020.

While District Attorney Jackie Lacey has allowed more than 600 killings by police officers to go unpunished, the case against her administration has been charged and proven far more effectively — her office’s continued tolerance of police brutality, her perceived foot-dragging on the cases of Ed Buck and Harvey Weinstein, her racist use of the death penalty in a county significantly opposed to its existence. Even her attempts at reform, such as her much-touted mental health diversion program, turn out to be nothing more than PR moves that her office continues to oppose.

That’s all well and good, but we also need a case for her opponent, George Gascón, as well. Many on the left, naturally, look askance at a man who wasn’t just a prosecutor but a police officer: first as part of the Los Angeles Police Department, then as a police chief in Mesa and San Francisco. Lacey’s campaign is working to muddy the waters as well, working harder to cast doubt on Gascón’s reform credentials rather than make the positive argument for Lacey (which, of course, doesn’t exist).

The LA Times went into depth in their own endorsement of Gascón, but there’s a different story to tell when you’re a publication like, say, KNOCK.LA, whose readers are likely to be out protesting the next District Attorney no matter who they are.

So, let’s talk about three laws that Gascón has supported, and that Lacey opposed — three substantial reforms that make the stakes clearer.

Proposition 47 (2014)

Authored in part by Gascón, who continued to defend it from right-wing fearmongering after its passage, Prop 47 was a significant decarceral reform that did away with some of the most absurd injustices in the Penal Code.

Under Prop 47, possession of an illegal drug for personal use became a misdemeanor, rather than a felony; it required misdemeanor sentencing for certain thefts of less than $950; and it did away with the felony shoplifting charge, the appropriately-numbered Penal Code § 666. Thousands of people in prison were eligible for resentencing under the new law, and hundreds of thousands of convictions could be reduced retroactively.

Okay, what does that actually mean? A misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. A felony — of the type that were done away with — has a maximum of three years in state prison, and disenfranchises a person for the length of their parole after their release (but: see Prop 17 on this year’s ballot). The difference between felony and misdemeanor sentencing can be far more stark once a person’s record is taken into account, however, as prison priors and strike priors quickly can cause felony sentences to balloon.

Let’s say you did prison time for a residential burglary, lost your housing and work, and developed a drug problem as a result. You’re caught with a single crack rock. Before Prop 47, your prior conviction for residential burglary has you looking at not just a felony but a doubled sentence, PLUS an additional FIVE YEARS — bringing us to a maximum of 11 years in prison — as well as severely curtailing your ability to earn time off for good behavior. Again, this would be for the personal use of a controlled substance or for a second-time shoplifting offense. By reducing these simple violations to misdemeanors, Prop 47 brought a concrete end to some of the most abusive sentencing scenarios.

Gascón helped write Prop 47. Jackie Lacey opposed it.

Proposition 57 (2016)

Passed overwhelmingly with more than 64% of the vote, Prop 57 made two substantial changes to the criminal legal system — one in the handling of parole, and the other in filling a vicious loophole in the juvenile court system.

First, it made prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes eligible for parole after completing their base term. What does that mean? Well, look at the example in the last section: the prior-strike-offense doubling, the extra five year enhancement. Those are sentencing enhancements on top of the base sentencing term for the offense. So, if we had a person convicted of a non-violent offense, and they had one strike on their record, they might get a sentence of four years — two years, doubled for the strike. Under the new Prop 57 rules that person could be considered for parole after finishing two years, creating a strong incentive for good behavior.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Prop 57 kept juvenile offenders in juvenile court. Under a law adopted in 2000, a prosecutor had the power to “direct-file” — to simply declare, by fiat, that they were going to charge a child as an adult, in adult court. This was deranged and abusive, and, of course, racist. A child could request a court hearing to send the case back to juvenile court, but the skewed legal standard meant that the burden was on the child, and even a single factor — such as, in and of itself, whether the alleged crime was serious — would leave them at the mercy of the adult court and prison system.

The transformation of juvenile law under Prop 57 was even more powerful than its impact on parole. Drafted in part by public defender Rourke Stacy, the law was intended to take into account what science understands about the development of the brain and the limitations and possibilities of young minds. Now even the most serious accusation against a minor begins in juvenile court, where more specialized advocacy and assistance can be immediately deployed. If the prosecution wants a case in adult court, they no longer have the authority to simply declare it; they must convince a judge, and the burden now lies heavily on the DA rather than the defense. In short, Prop 57 dramatically shifted the balance of juvenile law towards rehabilitation, reform, and treatment.

Again, this is simple: George Gascón supported Prop 57 and has pledged that his office would not seek to transfer children to adult court. Lacey opposed Prop 57 and has fought for the power to criminally charge elementary school aged children. Even the Probation Department, hardly a radical organization, considered Lacey’s fearmongering about Prop 57 unreasonable, arguing that it created incentives for reform and good behavior.

AB392 — Use of Force Standards — 2019

Like Lacey, Gascón also came under fire in San Francisco for failing to prosecute killings committed by police officers. A common excuse offered by District Attorneys is that they decline to charge police shootings because of the difficulty proving the case — the laws governing police violence, they say, make it too difficult to secure a conviction. While anyone familiar with the sort of cases that prosecutors pursue would rightly wonder why reasonable doubt becomes sacrosanct only when a cop is pulling the trigger, it’s true that the laws are embarrassingly lenient when it comes to the police.

Well, if the law is no good, why not change the goddamn law? Civil rights activists and their allies tried to do just this with AB392, a bill that rewrote police use of force standards. The final version of the bill — as seems to happen so often! — was amended in the legislature after police lobbying, causing Black Lives Matter and Silicon Valley De-Bug to withdraw their support, but the original was a powerful demand to stop police violence by limiting deadly force to only those situations where it becomes necessary.

George Gascón came out in favor of the bill early, before it had been watered down by pro-police legislators. He used his reputation and voice to make it easier to criminally charge and convict killer cops — to fix the law, not simply use it as an excuse for inaction the way Jackie Lacey did.

This is more technical than most articles about the race, as it’s intended to be. This is a year when every grimy, developer-bought weirdo in LA politics is claiming to be a progressive champion, after all. Discussing reform or public safety or, lord help us, “justice,” can be abstract and obfuscating. A year in a cage is not abstract. A 15-year-old child charged as an adult and sent to adult prison is not abstract. The stakes are real, and the choice is clear.

Want to learn more about your 2020 election ballot? Check out KNOCK.LA’s Voter Guide, which breaks down propositions and candidate platforms for over 120 races in and around LA County.

KNOCK.LA is a project paid for by Ground Game LA. This article was not authorized by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.