New D.A. backs off ban on sentencing enhancements

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Bowing to pressure, newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has amended his directive to eliminate sentencing enhancements and will now allow them in cases involving the most vulnerable victims and in specified “extraordinary” circumstances.

Gascón met significant resistance both within and outside the District Attorney’s Office since announcing his instruction to prosecutors to stop seeking the enhancements, which can add years to prison terms for some defendants, including ex-felons or gang members, or those who committed hate crimes or violence against police.

In a letter addressed to the community and released Dec. 18, Gascón said his office would seek sentencing enhancements only in hate crimes, crimes against children and the elderly, and other crimes that meet certain criteria.

The new policy comes after extensive discussions with crime victims, their advocates, members of the community and career prosecutors in his office, the county’s top prosecutor said.

Nearly all of the concerns I have heard center around my policy of ending all enhancements,” Gascón wrote. “To be responsive to your input, I have decided to make some adjustments to my initial directives.”

The Los Angeles Police Protective League issued a blistering statement, calling Gascón a mere “politician” rather than an experienced prosecutor.

George Gascón is providing a master class on the dangers of a politician running the D.A.’s office instead of an experienced prosecutor,” the statement said. “It took a national outcry for him to understand that child rapists, human traffickers and perpetrators of violent hate crimes should spend some more time behind bars. Yet, he’s still willing to go easy on gang members who terrorize our neighborhoods or criminals that shoot cops in the back of the head. He still doesn’t get that crime victims need an authentic voice for justice, not a politician that says one thing and does another — we have enough of those.”

The amended policy addresses concerns raised by vulnerable victims — children, the elderly and groups that are targeted because of their actual or perceived race or ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender or mental or physical disability.

The office, however, will continue with its policy to cease seeking gang and other sentencing enhancements, including those made available to prosecutors by California’s 1994 “three strikes” law. There are more than 100 enhancements in California’s penal code.

Over-incarceration — the practice of sending people to jails and prisons for too long — does not enhance safety,” the district attorney said shortly after being sworn into office on Dec. 7. “It actually hurts our safety.”

He called gang and other sentencing enhancements “a principal driver of mass incarceration.”

They are outdated, incoherent and applied unfairly,” he said. “Plus, no compelling evidence exists that they improve public safety.”

Research indicates that people who serve excessive sentences are more likely than those who serve proportional sentences with a rehabilitative or restorative purpose to commit crimes when they are returned to the community, creating more victims in the future, according to the D.A.’s office.

Gascón said that tough-on-crime policies of the past “undermine rehabilitation, exacerbate racial and other inequities in our justice system and they decimate families and communities. They also are crowding jails and prisons and exacerbating the COVID pandemic behind bars.”

In at least two cases last week, judges have refused to dismiss sentencing allegations that had been filed under two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey’s prior administration, and the issue is likely to arise in many other cases.

Two attorneys representing the families of crime victims spoke out last week against the district attorney’s new directives.

Did you know when you voted for the newly elected district attorney he was going to go to court and strike special circumstances to allow rapists and murderers to go back on the street early? Did he tell you that?” asked attorney Brian Claypool, who represents family members of two child murder victims.

Claypool noted his concern that the county’s top prosecutor may try to reverse the death sentence of Isauro Aguirre, who is on death row for the May 2013 killing of his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son, Gabriel Fernandez.

On his campaign website, Gascón vowed to work with “various stakeholders to get as many of the 229 people currently on death row from Los Angeles County resentenced to a sentence other than death.”

A former Los Angeles County prosecutor — who now represents the family of a man killed in a crash by a driver who was allegedly under the influence of nitrous oxide — is fighting moves by Gascón to drop great bodily injury allegations in that case and at least one other.

Attorney Sam Dordulian called for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to step in Dec. 14 and remind Gascón that he is not a legislator and is obliged to carry out the laws on the books.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz filed a resolution in opposition of Gascón’s recent directive to remove sentence enhancements, particularly when prosecuting hate crimes.

While many of his special directives are well-intentioned, I believe he missed the mark when he eliminated special enhancements for hate crimes being prosecuted in the county,” Koretz said.

On its Facebook page, the Torrance Police Officers’ Association noted that the “fallout” involving Gascón’s directive on sentencing enhancements is affecting “more cases being impacted with sentence and plea reductions” and line-level deputy district attorneys are “frustrated and unclear regarding execution of the directive, and concerned about retaliation if they fail to comply.”