Los Angeles DA Gascón Questioned about First Year in Office, and If He’s Experimenting with LA

George Gascón at a candidate’s forum in February 2020

By Julian Verdon

LOS ANGELES, CA – With potential recall efforts looming, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón defended his administration’s policies—despite some blaming him for a rise in crime—in an interview with KPCC’s Frank Stoltze this week.

“What do you think is going on here?” asked Stoltze about the crime spike, particularly smash-and-grab crimes and homicides.

DA Gascón explained that the 12 major cities in the U.S. have faced major increases in homicides. He also explained that there was also an overall increase in 2020, which has carried over to 2021.

“It’s complicated because there are so many layers that are driving the violence. You know, I think you can listen to criminologists and academics and you can look at data and you know there are different conclusions obviously. If you talk to law enforcement, they, often in our city and in our county, blame a sort of more relaxed or more reformed minded prosecutor,” responded DA Gascon.

He then went on to claim that, looking at other counties, even ones governed by more law-and-order prosecutors, possess a worse per capita crime rate. He also stated that crime was down overall and that the current situation in LA is complicated.

Stoltze then moved on to one of the more controversial policies implemented by DA Gascón, such as the shortening of sentences.

“What about this argument that maybe your posture and your signaling that you are going to seek shorter sentences has emboldened criminals?” asked Stoltze.

DA Gascón argued that longer sentences are not effective deterrents. He also went on to state that criminals with longer sentences are more likely to commit lawbreaking acts again and essentially have higher recidivism rates.

Stoltze then pressed DA Gascón on whether a district attorney’s rhetoric could have affected the crime rate.

“Zero,” responded DA Gascón.

“I have been in this business for years and worked with local police chiefs. Sometimes it sounds good, there are good soundbites about do not come to our town, but the reality is people are committing crimes regardless of whether you’re going to give the death penalty. That is the reality that is backed up by years of data and studies,” said Gascón, a former cop.

The conversation then moved on to the DA’s views on how he viewed the California criminal justice system as overly punitive and even racist, since it has resulted in the mass incarceration of Black and Latino men.

Stoltze suggested to address this issue of systemic racism DA Gascón has sought to reduce sentences even for violent crimes. Stoltze then asked DA Gascón to justify these new policies.

Gascón responded that his administration is still sending violent offenders away for long periods of time. However, they are not doing so at the prior rate of previous administrations and “if we send someone to prison for 20, 25 years to life, they would have been sent for 50 years.”

DA Gascón also stated that sending someone to prison is a heavy burden on the taxpayer. According to the DA, an extra 10 years in prison is the equivalent of $1 million and California alone spends around $16 billion on prisons. He believes that money could be better spent on education or rehabilitation.

Stoltze also questioned DA Gascón’s claims on policies of reduced prison sentences resulting in an increase in public safety.

He cited studies that claimed that a 2012 enhancement law resulted in 20 percent fewer gun robberies. The other is the California three strikes law, which reduced felony arrests by (for those who already have two strikes) by up to 20 percent as well.

“They have been debunked by many other studies, so let’s put that out there. I understand there is an expert for every argument, and you can come up with data to support almost any argument, but when you look at the large majority of credible researchers and data will say, except for the incapacitation effect, lengthier prison sentences have not deterred impact when they are out,” responded DA Gascón.

DA Gascón tackled the recidivism rate question again, citing that longer sentences do not deter criminals from reoffending. He claimed that the difficulty of life faced by someone released from prison, such as the inability to find adequate work, housing, and lack of voting rights contributes to their turning back to crime.

He also explained that there is no deterrent effect when it comes to types of punishment, such as the number of years behind bars.

“There is zero data or credible studies that say when someone is committing a robbery they are running the equation, if I get caught now, I will get five years, but if I go across the county line, I will get 10. That does not happen,” DA Gascón explained.

DA Gascón also stated that there was no correlation between his new reform policies and the rise in homicides. He stated that the murder rate is up across the state and even the nation, thus suggesting no correlation between the two.

DA Gascón also later said that he is aware of the current recall efforts. And that although he disagrees with the reasons for why they want a recall, he would ultimately respect the democratic process.

The interview ended with Stoltze throwing out another common criticism the DA faces.

“This is the last question. One of the most interesting ideas or critiques of you is that you are engaged in an experiment in L.A. County. It is hard not to consider that, given the changes are sweeping. You truly are in a dramatic fashion seeking shorter prison terms, no longer prosecuting most misdemeanors.

“They are breathtaking. They reverse decades of prosecutorial practice in the county. Maybe finish on that. This is an experiment in L.A. County. The stakes are high if it goes wrong in terms of public safety,” Stoltze finished.

Gascón responded that the three strikes law was technically an experiment, since according to him there was no data to back its effectiveness. Yet everyone was fine with it.

“I would not say this is an experiment. I would say it is a shifting in direction, trying to see policies and practices in other places that yield better results, and trying to make them applicable to our reality, unlike we did until a year ago, when we were incarcerating people at high rates and not seeing a return on that,” explained Gascón.

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