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New Los Angeles prosecutor ends cash bail for many offenses

District Attorney George Gascon also said he expects to end misdemeanor prosecutions of most first-time, nonviolent offenders

los angeles district attorney George Gascon

In this file photo, George Gascon, then candidate for Los Angeles District Attorney, speaks during a drive-in election night watch party.

Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS

By James Queally
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon announced sweeping policy changes as he took office Monday, including a plan to end the use of cash bail in the nation’s largest court system and a ban on his prosecutors seeking sentencing enhancements in nearly all cases.

The dramatic reversals to deeply engrained, traditional law enforcement strategies in the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office also include plans to review thousands of old cases to determine whether lighter sentences or a prisoner’s release should be sought, Gascon said in speech after being sworn in. Gascon also said he expects to bring an end to misdemeanor prosecutions of most first-time, nonviolent offenders.

“I recognize for many this is a new path ... whether you are a protester, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me. I ask you to join me on this journey,” he said. “We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.”

During his contentious campaign against the incumbent D.A., Jackie Lacey, Gascon had vowed more big changes, including barring prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in new cases and to end the practice of trying juveniles as adults. He followed through on both of those campaign promises Monday, announcing them among the slew of new policies he is implementing.

The moves have already drawn concerns from the ranks of the 1,200 deputy district attorneys who will now serve under Gascon, some of whom have complained that the new top prosecutor drew up many of these new positions without input from the office he is now set to oversee.

Under the policy Gascon laid out, beginning Jan. 1, the use of cash bail will end in L.A. County. Instead, prosecutors will be directed to ask judges to release defendants while their cases move through the courts, except when someone is accused of homicide or a small number of other serious crimes. In those cases, prosecutors will seek to have defendants kept in custody.

During his time as D.A. in San Francisco, Gascon pursued a similar undoing of the bail system, which critics have assailed as being rife with inequities that favor the wealthy over the poor. In its place, he championed the use of risk assessment tools, which evaluate the likelihood that a defendant will commit more crimes if released. L.A. County’s court system tested the use of a similar tool last year, but Gascon’s announcement suggested a clean break from pretrial incarceration for the vast majority of the people accused of crimes in the county.

The office will also stop filing misdemeanor charges against first-time offenders accused of nonviolent misdemeanors whose crimes were largely driven by poverty or addiction, Gascon said. The move again mirrored one he made in San Francisco, although it was not clear how that policy would affect jurisdictions in the sprawling county such as the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach that prosecute misdemeanor crimes on their own.

Nearly 10% of all misdemeanor cases presented to Gascon during his time in office in the Bay Area were diverted to pretrial alternative sentencing programs. Criminal justice reform activists generally support such reforms, saying they reduce crime in the long term by sparing people criminal records that make finding work or housing difficult. Law enforcement officials, however, often contend prosecuting people serves as a deterrent that cuts down on repeat offenders.

Gascon also said he would put an end to the use of sentencing enhancements, which prosecutors have long used to win longer sentences for people who, for example, are alleged to belong to gangs or used a firearm while committing a crime. Gascon has criticized the enhancements, saying they have led to excessive time behind bars for a wide range of defendants. The district attorney’s office, he said, will review “thousands” of cases in which defendants in L.A. County were sentenced under the enhancement rules — a move that could lead to prisoners having their sentences reduced or, in some cases, being released.

Along with promising to reopen four police shooting cases that Lacey declined to prosecute, Gascon also announced the creation of a use-of-force review board that will investigate a number of other police killings going back to 2012 for possible prosecution. Families of those killed by police in L.A. County will also now be able to seek the same services as crime victims from the district attorney’s office.

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