Gascón detractors pursue the status quo

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Not one, not two, not 10, but 17 cities in Los Angeles County at last count have said they want Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón out.

The L.A. County Registrar obliged them by giving them the thumbs up to circulate a recall Gascón petition. They have five months to gather the nearly 600,000 signatures needed to put the recall on the ballot in 2022. The way things are going they’ll almost certainly get the signatures.

Make no mistake, this is not another enraged public up in arms on an issue. This is a well-funded and well-orchestrated campaign by prison guard associations, police unions and victims’ rights groups, disgruntled deputy district attorneys and a legion of conservative talking heads to nail Gascón. Their alleged beef with him is that his reforms will swing the prison and jail gates wide open and unloose hordes of dangerous criminals back on the streets.

It’s a near textbook Donald Trump-style scare and fear mongering campaign stuffed with the usual healthy dose of half-truths, distortions and out-and-out lies about Gascón’s proposed reforms.

To them, Gascón’s biggest sin is that he believes that district attorneys 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. He’s one of an increasing number of reform-minded district attorneys nationally who believe that equal protection under the law is 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.

That is just the starting point to try and make sense of why a guy who has been in office a scant few months has raised the hackles of the right and the old guard law enforcement establishment.

Traditionally, district attorneys are a hard and fast extension of policing. Their mandate is a single-minded focus on prosecutions, convictions and maximum incarceration for offenders.

That tunnel vision approach to the criminal justice system has made them virtually immune to any talk of reform which would mean finding ways to provide services and support to at-risk individuals to prevent criminal activity and reduce the chance of recidivism.

Traditionally, district attorneys have another mandate. That is to turn as blind an eye as possible to police misconduct. Cops who beat, maim and even kill under the color of law in even the most dubious circumstances know that they have a virtual open pass from district attorneys who will not prosecute them. The pass holds even when the rare times that police officials request a prosecution, the answer is still no.

District attorneys know that if they forget that and start holding police officers who break the law accountable, there will be a loud howl from police unions and associations. They will suddenly find themselves the target of a relentless big-money campaign to dump them from office. Few district attorneys have the stomach to risk that.

No surprise then that district attorneys have been the loudest proponents of three-strikes provisions state legislatures routinely rushed through several years ago. With few exceptions, district attorneys also were the loudest in protesting any relaxing or outright repeal of three-strikes laws.

Then there’s the public. The 17 cities that voted “no confidence” in Gascón repeatedly cited public concern over alleged rising crime as their rationale for going after him. That is an easy card to play.

Simply mention crime and that always stirs anxiety and terror among many. The fear card is even easier to play with middle-class to wealthy business owners and homeowners. Toss in the conjured image of packs of poor young Blacks and Hispanics running roughshod through their neighborhoods, and that part of the public is off to the races demanding a crackdown.

The cities that target Gascón will continue to play hard on the crime fear.

Gascón belongs to a group known as the Prosecutor Alliance of California. It is an association of progressive prosecutors who choose 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 has gone a step further and established a unit to review questionable police shootings.

Gascón continually refers to the need for “prosecutorial excellence” in his approach to criminal justice reform. However, He almost certainly knows that his definition of prosecutorial excellence and that of the hard-bitten district attorneys that he opposes is worlds apart.

That is why the cities that say no to him want him out. This is why those who agree with his much-needed reforms must fight to keep him in office.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “I Can’t Breathe — The Never-Ending George Floyds” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

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