Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Not one, not two, not ten, not fifteen, but seventeen L.A. County cities at last count have said they want Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón out. The L.A. County Registrar obliged them by giving them the thumbs up to circulate a Recall George Gascon petition. They have five months to gather the nearly 600,000 signatures needed to put the recall to the ballot in 2022. The way things are going they’ll almost certainly get the signatures.
Make no mistake, this is not another enraged, public up in arms on an issue. This is a well-funded and well-orchestrated campaign by prison guard associations, police unions and associations, victims’ rights groups, disgruntled deputy DAs, DA’s association, and a legion of conservative talking heads to nail Gascon. Their alleged beef with him is that his reforms will swing the prison and jail gates wide open and unloose hordes of dangerous criminals back on the streets. It’s a near textbook Trump-style scare and fear-mongering campaign stuffed with the usual healthy dose of half-truths, distortions, and out-and-out lies about Gascon’s proposed reforms.
His greatest sin to them is that he believes that D.A.s should not simply be about the business of locking up as many folk as possible, the overwhelming majority of whom are poor, Black, and Hispanic. He’s one of an increasing number of reform-minded DAs nationally who believe that equal protection under the law is something more than just noble words on a scrap of paper. This means enforcing the law in a fair, impartial, even-handed, and — most importantly — just way.
This is just the starting point to try and make sense of why a guy who has been in office a scant few months has raised the hackles of the right and the old guard law enforcement establishment. Traditionally, DAs are a hard and fast extension of policing. Their mandate is a single-minded focus on prosecutions, convictions, and maximum incarceration for offenders.
Their tunnel vision approach to the criminal justice system has made them virtually immune to any talk of reform which would mean finding ways to provide services and support to at-risk individuals to prevent criminal activity and reduce the chance of recidivism. Traditionally, DA’s have another mandate. That is to turn as blind an eye as possible to police misconduct. Cops who beat, maim, and even kill under the color of law in even the most dubious circumstances know that they have a virtual open pass from DAs who will not prosecute them. The pass holds even when the rare times that police officials request a prosecution, the answer is still no.
DAs know that if they forget that and start holding cops that break the law accountable, there will be a loud howl from police unions and associations. They’ll suddenly find themselves the target of a relentless big-money campaign to dump them from office. Few DAs have the stomach to risk that.
No surprise then that DAs have been the loudest proponents of three-strikes provisions state legislatures routinely rushed through several get tough three-strikes laws. With few exceptions, DAs also were the loudest in protesting any relaxing or outright repeal of three-strikes laws.
Then there’s the public. The seventeen cities that voted “no confidence” in Gascon repeatedly cited public concern over alleged rising crime as their rationale for going after him. This is an easy card to play. Simply mention crime and that always stirs anxiety and terror among many. The fear card is even easier to play with middle-class to wealthy, business, and homeowners. Toss in the conjured image of packs of poor young Blacks and Hispanics running roughshod through their neighborhoods, and that part of the public is off to the races demanding a crack-down. The bunch of cities that target Gascon will continue to play hard on the crime fear.
Gascon belongs to a group known as the Prosecutor Alliance of California. This is an association of progressive prosecutors who choose to back off the death penalty except in the most heinous cases and to find more ways to fund and push rehab, treatment, and alternative sentencing to prevent packing the jails with drug and petty non-violent offenders. He has gone a step further and established a unit to review questionable police shootings.
Gascón continually refers to the need for “prosecutorial excellence” in his approach to criminal justice reform. However, He almost certainly knows that his definition of prosecutorial excellence and that of the hard-bitten D.A.s that he opposes is worlds apart.
That is why the cities that say no to him want him out. This is why those who agree with his much-needed reforms must fight to say yes to him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is I Can’t Breathe—The Never-Ending George Floyds (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.