THE HUTCHINSON REPORT
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
They started in on Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón when he was still the San Francisco district attorney
They were back on him again when he announced his candidacy for L.A. County district attorney. And the instant he won the office, they started in again.
Gascón’s great sin is he actually utters, believes in and will work for real criminal justice reform. The “they” who can’t stomach the idea of a district attorney who actually 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, are formidable. Topping the list are many of his fellow D.A.s, followed close behind by prison guard associations, police unions, victims’ rights groups and a legion of conservative talking heads. And now, 90 days into his term of office, there’s talk of a recall campaign against him.
Gascón has made clear he intends to make equal protection under the law something more than just noble words on a scrap of paper. That means enforcing the law in a fair, impartial, even handed and — most importantly — just way.
Gascón finally fed up with the carping against him by many D.A.s took the unprecedented step of quitting the California District Attorneys Association. He didn’t stop with just saying goodbye. He spelled out in a letter made public exactly why he was quitting.
He started with the fact that the association does not have a single D.A. of color on its board. Then the association piled on by backing a lawsuit against Gascón by a disgruntled deputy D.A. angry at him for his reform efforts that put fairness above the standard D.A. pap of being “tough on crime.” There’s more. Gascón blasts the association for duplicity and corruption, claiming that it took millions earmarked for environmental protections and instead plowed the funds into a lobbying campaign against criminal justice reform initiatives. Gascón’s parting shot was that the association is no longer the only D.A. player on the block. There is now the Prosecutor Alliance of California, prosecutors committed to reform. Gascón says he’s a proud member of the alliance.
Gascón’s farewell from the association is the logical culmination of his promise to be a real reform district attorney; the kind L.A. County has never had. But as Gascón well knows, this won’t be easy.
He has already felt the chill from the frozen mindset of underlings in his office. They are prosecutors first, second and last.
Their mandate, training, thinking and — most troubling — their orientation is toward prosecuting, incarcerating and being tough law and punishment advocates. The least hint of any deviation from this mindset in a district attorney’s office touches off a storm of rage and resistance from other prosecutors.
It sets off even more bells and whistles of protest and resistance from many police officials.
That is not surprising. District attorneys, in effect, are extensions of police departments. They work hand in glove with police on investigations, arrests and trials.
The name of the game is to put as many of the supposed bad guys behind bars as possible and preferably see that they stay behind bars as long as possible.
District attorneys were the loudest proponents of three-strikes provisions state legislatures routinely rushed through several back. With few exceptions, they also were the loudest in protest against any relaxing or outright repeal of three strikes laws.
The Prosecutor Alliance of California is part of a growing nationwide trend among prosecutors 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 also has gone a step further and established a unit to review questionable police shootings.
That is not a small consideration. Judges and juries have been loath to convict officers in cases involving excessive force against civilians. And Gascón, like other D.A.s, knows that the name of the game in prosecutions is getting convictions.
Gascón is aware that D.A.s play it close to the vest on this issue for another very good reason. To go after cops is fraught with political peril. They become instant targets of police unions with local politicians ducking for cover and not raising a peep of protest when the assault on a reform-minded D.A. kicks into gear.
Gascón continually referred to the need for “prosecutorial excellence” in his parting shot at the D.A.’s association. However, Gascón almost certainly knows that his definition of prosecutorial excellence and the hard-bitten D.A.s that he opposes is worlds apart.
That is why so many D.A.s don’t like him and where he’s determined to take the L.A. County D.A.’s office. His exit from that association proves he could care less about that. We can all be thankful for that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College” (Amazon). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.