Deputy DA Association Sues Los Angeles DA over Criminal Justice Reforms, Sentencing Enhancement Directives

George Gascón at a candidate’s forum in February

By Roxanna Jarvis and Evie Sun

LOS ANGELES – After facing backlash following his announcement to end all sentencing enhancements, Los Angeles County’s District Attorney George Gascón—despite backtracking to allow for some enhancements—has still been sued by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA).

Gascón was sworn into office as Los Angeles County’s District Attorney on Dec. 7, and on his first day he announced sweeping changes, such as an end to cash bail, all sentencing enhancements, and showing “leniency to low-level offenders.”

In addition, Gascón followed through with his campaign promise of barring his prosecutors from seeking the death penalty and ending the practice of trying juveniles as adults.

Gascón also announced a use-of-force review board, which will investigate a number of police killings from 2012 on for possible prosecuting. His office will impose a sentencing review unit to look back on thousands of cases in L.A. where defendants were sentenced with enhancements. This will allow for prisoners to have their sentences reduced or even being released.

A Misdemeanor Reform policy directive was also established, which includes a declination policy directive, a diversion policy directive, non-diversionary plea offers, fines and fees, a Pretrial Release Policy, and a Habeas Corpus Litigation Unit.

On Dec. 17, Gascón established the office’s first Crime Victims Advisory Board comprised of members who will advise him on best practices for helping victims of crime become survivors. Gascón announced new policies that no longer required victims to testify in order to receive victim services. He also said his office would immediately begin extending services to families of those killed by law enforcement.

Referring to his 40 years as an officer, Gascón stated, “As I have for decades, I will work tirelessly to restore victims and help them on their journey to survivor. What I have learned from victims and advocates alike over the years is that few crime victims find healing from the trauma they’ve suffered simply by putting another in a cage.”

Police unions, victims’ advocates and prosecutors have been outspoken about opposing the changes Gascón has planned or already made.

One change in particular is Gascón’s decision to eliminate sentencing enhancements. These groups fear that the elimination of enhancements would allow that those charged with violent crimes, like murder and rape, will be released.

In response to this resistance, he reiterated his intentions for rolling out the directives. Gascón argued that sentencing penalties disproportionately affect populations of color and those who face mental health challenges. “Enhancements are also three times more likely to be applied to defendants who are African American or mentally ill,” he stated.

While most Deputy District Attorneys (DDAs) who oppose Gascón’s policies have kept themselves hidden in fear of work retaliation, Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami has shared his concerns with a number of local news channels, well aware of the risk.

“If somebody got released and hurt somebody, especially a child, and I sat back and didn’t say anything because I wanted to save myself and my job, I couldn’t do it,” said Hatami in an interview with Fox 11 Los Angeles.

Hatami, who has spent nearly 15 years at the LA DA’s office, became well-known after Netflix released a docuseries about the case of Gabriel Fernandez, an eight-year-old boy tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend. Hatami was the lead prosecutor. Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, received life without parole and her boyfriend was sentenced with the death penalty.

Hatami told Fox 11 that Gascón’s “blanket policy” of directives are “unreasonable” and “[don’t] make any sense,” adding, “He wants us to say, ‘It’s in the interest of justice.’ Even if we don’t believe it is and even if the evidence doesn’t show it. He still wants us to say that and if we don’t, we could get in trouble.”

On Dec. 18, Gascón announced that he will still allow some sentencing enhancements to occur after receiving backlash for banning all enhancements.

In a statement, Gascón said he would allow enhancements for specific cases such as involving crimes against children, the elderly, and hate-motivated crimes. Cases involving sexual abuse, human sex trafficking and “significant financial crimes” will also be eligible.

But, rolling back his original stance on enhancements was not enough for opponents.

On Dec. 30, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) filed a lawsuit against Gascón and his DA’s office. In addition, the ADDA filed a request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Gascón over his enhancements policy.

The lawsuit claims that Gascón has violated the law by issuing his four directives which prohibit DDAs’ ability to file strike prior enhancements and dismisses “pending strike priors, special circumstance enhancements, gang enhancements, and certain other ‘felony prior’ enhancements.”

While Gascón’s directives have ordered DDAs to dismiss and not pursue strike priors and enhancements, CA law imposes a “mandatory duty” on prosecutors to seek such penalties, the pleading claims, noting the dismissal of strike priors can only occur under “special circumstances” and not under “blanket policy.” To the ADDA, Gascón’s directives directly violate these laws and go against their duty as prosecutors.

“Los Angeles County prosecutors have been placed in an impossible position,” stated ADDA Vice President Eric Siddall. “Do we follow our legal and ethical responsibilities and risk getting disciplined, even fired by our new boss? Or do we follow his policy directives and risk losing our California State Bar Cards and, by extension, our ability to practice law anywhere in the state?”

That same day, the Court declined to issue a Temporary Restraining Order, and instead ordered Gascón to show cause for why the court should not prohibit Gascón and the DA’s office from enforcing the “unlawful portions of their Special Directives.”

According to a statement from the ADDA, the respondent parties (Gascón and the DA’s office) have until Jan. 15 to respond. A hearing on the Court’s decision will be held on February 2.

Gascón’s response to the news of the lawsuit consisted of a reminder that “the people” of Los Angeles expressed their views on sentencing enhancements when they voted for him as DA.

“I invite open and respectful debate based on the facts; however, the people have spoken, the direction is clear and, in the end, we all want the same things – safety and equal justice under the law,” wrote Gascón in a statement.

Referencing his experience as a former cop and chief of police, Gascón said he has never seen enhancements or strike allegations increase safety in the communities he’s worked in. “The facts” Gascón refers to are studies that show how recidivism rates and the number of victims increase along with excessive sentencing.

“Data show these harsh practices compromise our community’s long term health and safety, create more hardened criminals and victims, and therefore are not in the interests of justice,” Gascón continued.

“The will of the voters must not be mistaken as a commentary on the hundreds of Deputy DAs who labor, day in and day out, who protect the public. They are public servants who have earned our utmost respect and gratitude,” he said.

“I commend the court for its decision (to not grant a TRO), but ultimately it will take all of us, working together, to get this done,” asking DAs to join him as he goes forward to make changes within the LA DA’s office.

Despite opposition, Gascón is one of many prosecutors who have implemented progressive policies within their DA offices, introducing a reimagining of public safety and handling within the criminal justice system. In addition, Gascón has very strong support within the LA community regarding his vision for the future of the DA’s office.

On Dec. 21, the DA Accountability Coalition tweeted out a Unified Statement in Support of George Gascón’s Justice Reforms signed by them and a large list of other organizations based in Southern California.

Those who signed the statement included, the ACLU of Southern California, Black Lives Matter- Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, Loyola Law School, the LA County Public Defenders Union, and the National Lawyers Guild — Los Angeles.

The statement explains how prosecutors hold a huge amount of power and can use such power to “criminalize poverty, flood prisons and jails, deepened systemic racial disparities, exempt police killings from accountability, justify bloated police budgets, and prosecute youth like “super predators.”

The statement continued to say that the election of Gascón and his policies have made it possible to change the way public safety is enforced within the criminal justice system: “These sweeping reforms will enhance public safety and are well-aligned with a burgeoning national consciousness that we can no longer police and cage away the many social ills produced by inequality, racism, and poverty: the root causes of crime.”

The group commended Gascón’s efforts to collaborate with various groups in the community, and commented how opposition to Gascón’s policies were unsurprising due to the “decades old dog whistle of ‘Law and Order’” used to compromise progress in reform.

The urgency to protect Gascón’s “reimagined vision for public safety” was explicitly highlighted in the letter, stating:  “Mr. Gascón’s election represents the will of the people, WE THE UNDERSIGNED strongly support his directives which are a crucial first step to unseat Los Angeles as the capital of mass incarceration in California.”

Roxanna Jarvis is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley, currently majoring in Political Science with a minor in Public Policy. She is from Sacramento, California.

Evie Sun is a third-year student at UCLA, studying Sociology. She is from the East Bay Area.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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