Judge Deals Blow to LA District Attorney’s New Policies

February 10, 2021 Updated: February 10, 2021

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has suffered a setback in the first legal challenge to his controversial criminal justice reform policies.

On Feb. 8, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant granted a preliminary injunction that prohibits Gascón from ordering his prosecutors to carry through some of his directives.

“Judge Chalfant’s ruling vindicates a lot of what we have been arguing for months in individual cases—that George Gascón’s policies were illegal and wrong,” Sam Dordulian, an attorney who represents several families of crime victims in L.A., told The Epoch Times.

The families Dordulian represents argue that Gascón’s directives prevent justice for the crimes against their loved ones by decreasing penalties for those convicted.

Since taking office Dec. 7, Gascón has followed through on his promise to “reimagine public safety” by issuing directives that emphasize rehabilitation and other social programs he says have been shown to reduce recidivism. He has sought to phase out what he characterizes as an outdated “tough-on-crime” approach that focuses more on incarceration.

His policies have been criticized by judges, victims, a former district attorney, and deputy district attorneys.

But Gascón maintains that he is carrying out the will of the 2 million people in L.A. County who voted for him to overhaul the justice system. His directives are “based on science and data, not fear and emotion,” he said in a Feb. 8 Twitter post.

While the judge did prohibit some of Gascón’s directives, Chalfant also acknowledged that the DA represents the will of the voters and should not be unduly inhibited.

His ruling reads: “The public interest strongly weighs in his favor. He has almost unfettered discretion to perform his prosecutorial duties. … He was elected on the very platform he is trying to implement and any intrusion on this prosecutorial discretion is not in the public interest unless clearly warranted.”

Three Strikes Law

One policy the judge singled out as “unlawful” was Gascón’s attempt to eliminate the Three Strikes law, which gives defendants a sentence of 25 years to life if convicted of three violent or severe felonies.

The ruling noted a point made by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), who filed the lawsuit: “Gascón’s argument about the will of the County voters who elected him ignores the will of the 5.9 million voters—70% of the California electorate—who voted for the Three Strikes law.”

In Gascón’s view, the Three Strikes law represents “a legacy of California’s ‘tough on crime’ era … [that] exacerbate[s] racial disparities in the justice system.”

The ADDA said in a statement: “As the court ruling makes clear, this decision was based on what the law is and not what an officeholder thinks it should be. 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.”

‘Unethical’ Script

The judge also took issue with a script Gascón issued to DDAs. Gascón instructed them to read it out during court proceedings to dismiss or withdraw any enhancements that could add time to a suspect’s sentence.

A portion of the script states, “It is the position of this office that [these enhancement laws] are unconstitutional … [they] provide no deterrent effect or public safety benefit of incapacitation—in fact, the opposite may be true, wasting critical financial state and local resources.”

Chalfant said the script is “legally inaccurate and incomplete and reading this statement in court without correction is unethical.”

Attorney David J. Carrol, arguing on behalf of the ADDA, told Judge Chalfant that it was inappropriate to force DDAs to argue something is unconstitutional when they know it is not.

The DDAs were worried about being held in contempt of court for reading it out after some had been chastised by judges for doing so. The DDAs argued that they were forced to choose between following directions from their boss, Gascón, and doing what they believe to be ethical and lawful. They worried not only of facing contempt of court but also discipline by the State Bar.

Attorney Robert E. Dugdale, who represents Gascón and the DA’s Office, said the ADDA’s action is unprecedented. He argued that the law allows Gascón to establish the policies he has chosen.

“I want to make clear: The DA does not believe he is above the law,” said Dugdale.

Gascón’s Appeal

Gascón—who said in a statement that Chalfant’s ruling does not impact “the vast majority of my directives”—has already announced his plan to appeal the court’s decision.

“Until the appeal is decided, my office will adjust its policies to be consistent with this ruling,” he said via Twitter on Feb. 8. “We can no longer afford—morally, socially or economically—to justify tough-on-crime policies in the name of victims when a majority of the survivor community supports rehabilitation over excessive sentences.”

The DA maintains that his policies are modeled on research that points toward a modern approach to advancing community safety, adding, “I never had any illusions as to the difficulty and challenges associated with reforming a dated institution steeped in systemic racism.”

The ADDA affirmed their support for “common-sense” criminal justice reform. However, the group argued that Gascón’s approach assumes that a new social infrastructure that includes educational programs, vocational training, counseling, and supervision will comfortably replace lawful prison sentences.

“However, that infrastructure does not exist,” ADDA said. “It is difficult to conclude that letting convicted prisoners out early—without the theoretical support system in place—is likely to do anything but expedite recidivism.”

A Possible Recall

Victims’ rights attorney Dordulian praised the court’s decision, but said the fight for victims must continue.

“Mr. Gascón’s focus remains on helping those who have victimized our communities (murderers, rapists, child molesters) and he has shown an almost complete disregard for the rights of the victims in such cases,” he said via email. “[He] is deaf to the cries of victims and how his policies are truly harmful and hurtful.”

Dordulian suggested that it will take a recall effort to “help restore justice in our courts.”

That recall effort is already underway—but the legal process cannot officially begin until Mar. 6, which marks Gascón’s 90th day in office.