In December 2020, George Gascón triumphantly rode into office as the new Los Angeles district attorney, bringing with him the radical ideas that hurt San Francisco when he served as the chief prosecutor in that city. Less than two years later, Gascón is in retreat, pivoting away from his progressivism and watching his political base wither.
When Gascón first took office in the City of Angels, he immediately issued a memo setting forth his new rules. These policies included never seeking the death penalty, not charging mandatory sentencing enhancements, a ban on certifying violent juveniles to adult court, declining to seek life-without-parole sentences, and de-prosecuting entire categories of crimes.
Gascón’s policies have now collided with the reality of crime in Los Angeles. Homicides in 2021 surged to the highest levels in 15 years. An 81-year old philanthropist was murdered in her Beverly Hills home. A 24-year-old UCLA graduate student was murdered while working in a boutique furniture store in the middle of the day. An off-duty police officer was gunned down by gang members while house-hunting with this girlfriend. And a 26-year-old transgender woman was permitted to plead guilty in juvenile court to sexually assaulting a ten-year old girl in a restaurant bathroom, even though the defendant identified as a male at the time of the assault and openly mocked the lenient juvenile plea terms in recorded phone calls.
In response to this last crime, the public, victims’ families, and law enforcement blasted Gascón. Even his own prosecutors pointed out that he was making L.A. less safe. Unlike the tech and finance utopia of San Francisco—which Gascón still managed to lead into a purgatory of homelessness and disorder—L.A. has real areas of poverty and a history of gang violence. De-prosecution in a city like this doesn’t just lead to homeless people camping on the streets. It leads to murder.
Gascón has since engaged in a half-hearted retreat. He announced a policy change: juveniles who committed particularly heinous crimes could be charged as adults, and prosecutors could seek life-without-parole sentences. Both decisions would require approval from a special team of Gascón’s advisors, including former public defenders, but at least these options were back on the table. Gascón even said that he never should have allowed the transgender woman to plead guilty in juvenile court, suggesting that the defendant may have been identifying as transgender in a bid for lenient treatment.
Has Gascón suddenly had an attack of conscience, realizing that his policies are helping to kill people? Did he remember that he used to be a cop, and that his duty was to protect and serve? Not likely. His about-face seems to have been triggered by a much more vital concern: his political life.
If Gascón once had visions of rising like Kamala Harris from district attorney to attorney general to national stardom, he faces a more uncertain future now. Angelenos are mounting a second recall effort to get him out of office, and as Los Angeles magazine has noted, it is being fueled not only by conservatives and law enforcement but also by Hollywood luminaries and big-money donors. When Gascón ran for office, celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and Kim Kardashian publicly backed him. Now, theater figures, real-estate magnates, Clinton and Obama bundlers, Joe Biden’s pick for an ambassadorship, and big-time Hollywood producers are funding the recall effort. As one studio executive said, “People can be liberal in ideology, but they don’t want crime in their city.”
The immediate question for Gascón is whether his soft turn to addressing rampant crime in Los Angeles will be enough to save his career. The long-term issue is whether the public, even in liberal cities, is waking up to the reality that de-prosecution can be deadly.
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