Monday Morning Thoughts: Gascón Is a Reformer on Paper Only

If You Are Looking for Progressive Prosecution and Transformative Change, Look to the Grassroots like Krasner, Rollins, Caban, Johansson, and Chesa Boudin

It is an interesting article in the NY Times, tracking the careers of George Gascón, who resigned last week as San Francisco’s district attorney to consider challenging the incumbent in Los Angeles, Jackie Lacey.  They argue that “such a race could help define criminal justice reform.”

In a way, maybe it has – but not in the way the Times believes.

In a way what Mr. Gascón has done has undermined the progressive prosecution movement rather than emboldened it.  It is not clear why his new move was to resign about a month prior to election, allowing London Breed to name Suzy Loftus, one of the candidates, to be acting DA – giving her an edge as she faces three candidates for what was an open seat, including the most progressive of that bunch, Public Defender Chesa Boudin.

Don’t get me wrong.  Ms. Loftus, a career prosecutor who worked under Kamala Harris in San Francisco, would be considered progressive in many circles – what she is not is cut from the mold of Larry Krasner, Tiffany Caban, Dean Johansson and those who have moved from the public defender’s office to the DA’s office.

The race that is shaping up in Los Angeles figures to be along these lines.  Jackie Lacey, African American, but no reformer.  The Times writes, “As a prosecutor and as the current district attorney of Los Angeles, Ms. Lacey has taken a tough line on crime, sending people to prison at a rate far higher than in San Francisco.”

Mr. Gascón, 66, leaves office on October 18.

He said in his note to staff that he and his wife, Fabiola, “are returning to Los Angeles to rejoin our family and explore a run for district attorney. Making our communities safer and more equitable remains my life’s work, and I’m simply not ready to slow down and put public service behind me.”

This all but assures he will run for the LA DA’s office.

For the NY Times, they see, “A race between Mr. Gascón and Ms. Lacey would be another important test for the criminal justice reform movement, which has swept progressive prosecutors into office in cities from Philadelphia to Chicago to Boston, as well as in Brooklyn. National activists have long eyed the seat in Los Angeles County, calling it the most important campaign in the country, both because Los Angeles has the nation’s largest criminal justice system — it has the largest jail and the biggest prosecutor’s office — and because its incarceration rates are still relatively high.”

On paper they would have a point.  We have often pointed out that Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig has attempted to assume the mantle of progressive prosecutor despite the fact that he doesn’t support any of the progressive reforms – opposed Prop. 64 (cannabis legalization), opposed two death penalty reform bills, opposed Prop. 47 (sentencing reform), opposed Prop. 57, opposed and continues to opposed SB 1437, SB 1421, SB 1391, etc.  You name a major criminal justice reform item – he opposed it.  Even the three strikes reform, Prop. 36 in 2012, he took no position on.

The NY Times points out, “Mr. Gascón has supported several statewide measures to reduce prison populations, some of which Ms. Lacey has opposed. She is also among the prosecutors who have pursued new death penalty cases after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on executions in March. Mr. Gascón’s office has never prosecuted a capital case.”

Mr. Gascón has also supported things like bail reform, Prop. 47, Prop. 64, and other reform measures.

If you stop there, you would think Mr. Gascón is running a progressive DA’s office, and in some ways he has.

But the problem is that we can’t stop there.  In June, the Vanguard opened our court watch program in San Francisco and the truth is ugly.  What we see are some of the worst examples of overcharging, prosecutorial misconduct, and police misconduct you can imagine.

We have seen the prosecutors look the other way at blatant police misconduct on a regular basis.  We have seen prosecutors caught on video coaching impressionable witnesses, attempting to tilt the scale against demonstrably innocent defendants.  We have seen prosecutors look the other way and defend the violation of constitutional rights to due process in major crime cases.

In fact, after spending ten years watching cases in Yolo County, the only thing different about watching cases in San Francisco is that there is more crime and more rampant misconduct on the part of both police and prosecutors.

Mr. Gascón can talk the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk.

The NY Times paints an even more eerie picture in Los Angeles.

They note, “Ms. Lacey has much of the city’s political establishment behind her, with endorsements from Mayor Eric M. Garcetti, four of the five county supervisors, state officials and local congressional representatives.”

“Time and time again, Jackie Lacey has demonstrated her ability to protect the public, fight crime and ensure justice for all the people of Los Angeles County,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, a Democrat from Los Angeles who is leading the impeachment inquiry of President Trump, said in a statement.

Sound familiar?  That’s the same thing going on in San Francisco.  The establishment in San Francisco is backing Suzy Loftus, just as they are backing Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles.

Suzy Loftus will be a lot closer to where George Gascón is than where Jackie Lacey is, but at the end of the day, neither are likely to be Larry Krasner (Philadelphia), Rachael Rollins (Boston), Wesley Bell (St. Louis), Tiffany Caban, or Chesa Boudin.  None of them are likely to be forces for transformational change.

All this shows us is how far we have left to go in the fight for progressive prosecution.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Want to learn more?  Join us in three weeks – October 26 – for a discussion of Progressive Prosecution with Durham, NC DA Satana Deberry, Noah Phillips (Sacramento DA Candidate), Genevieve Jones-Wright (San Diego DA Candidate), plus Jeffrey Deskovic (Exoneree and future attorney) and Lisa Rea (Restorative Justice International) – tickets here:

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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