Los Angeles County prosecutors took the progressive new district attorney to court and won a ruling Monday blocking some criminal justice reforms he instituted to reduce prison sentences.
Superior Court Judge James Chalfant issued a preliminary injunction blocking some directives District Attorney George Gascon issued to end enhancements that can add years to prison sentences.
Gascon said he would appeal.
Gascon took office in December and immediately put in place reforms that he campaigned on, such as vowing not to seek the death penalty, not prosecute juveniles as adults and ending the use of sentencing enhancements that trigger stiffer sentences for certain elements of crimes, repeat offenses or being a gang member. Gascon has argued that enhancements don’t make communities safer.
Gascon, who overcame opposition from law enforcement unions during his campaign to unseat two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey, quickly found himself facing stiff opposition from within his office.
Career prosecutors took the unusual step of suing their new boss. They claimed the directives violated state law, their oath of office and ethical and professional obligations.
“The court ruled as we expected in holding that the district attorney cannot order his prosecutors to ignore laws that protect the public from repeat offenders,” the union said in a statement. “The court ruled that the district attorney’s policy violated the law to benefit criminal defendants and ordered him to comply with the law. This ruling protects the communities which are disproportionately affected by higher crime rates and those who are victimized.”
Gascon said he would follow the ruling while he appeals. He said it wouldn’t affect most of his directives.
“I never had any illusions as to the difficulty and challenges associated with reforming a dated institution steeped in systemic racism,” Gascon said in a statement. “My directives are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety.”
Gascon initially issued a blanket directive ending all sentencing enhancements. After blowback from crime victims and rank-and-file prosecutors, though, he revised the policy to allow enhancements in extraordinary circumstances in hate crimes, elder abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, sex trafficking and financial crimes.
Enhancements run the gamut from so-called three strikes offenses, where a third serious or violent felony can lead to a life sentence, to special circumstances like use of a gun in a murder case that bring a life term without possibility of parole. Other enhancements can add years to a prison sentence if proven at trial.
Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School, said the ruling is a setback for Gascon, but not the final word. In addition to appealing, he can further fine-tune the directives.
Levenson said it was unusual that the internal fight had spilled into the courts.
“Everything about this is unusual,” she said. “But it’s not a surprise that it’s happening, given that Gascon is coming in as a progressive or reformer among DAs, many of whom don’t want to reform.”
The deputies union got support from the California District Attorneys Association, which filed a friend of the court brief opposing the policy change. Some former prosecutors and academics supported Gascon, as did the American Civil Liberties Union.
The judge said prosecutors can’t dismiss enhancements that were filed in existing cases and they must seek third strike offenses when required by the law.
However, Chalfant said Gascon can prevent his deputies from filing enhancements in future cases that are not required under the three strikes law.