New LA DA’s Reforms Draw Ire From Victims, Former DA

December 28, 2020 Updated: December 28, 2020

The moment George Gascón took office as Los Angeles County’s district attorney on Dec. 7, he implemented a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system.

Gascón, whose stated goal is to “reimagine public safety,” has been widely criticized by deputy district attorneys, lawyers, current and former officials, and families of victims.

He’s preventing justice from being served, says one widow whose husband’s alleged killer could experience leniency under Gascón’s reforms.

“For this man [Gascón] to come in and not follow the rule of law and just make up his own policies is ludicrous,” Tania Owen, 55, told The Epoch Times. “As the DA, as the top man, [he] should be the defender of the community that he serves.”

Gascón’s reforms include an end to cash bail and the death sentence, and widespread restrictions on sentencing enhancements. His goal is to decrease incarceration, which he says disproportionately impacts the black community and doesn’t prevent crime in the bigger picture.

Though many victims’ families have spoken out against the leniency for some criminals, others have stood by Gascón.

Enako Major said during a Dec. 16 meeting of Gascón’s Crime Victims Advisory Board, “I’m here as a mother who lost her son to violence. And I’m not trying to say that we don’t want to hold people accountable. But we can no longer just lock people up and throw away the key. We’re asking for healing behind bars.”

While an effort to recall Gascón is gearing up, some say voters already made their choice and elected Gascón knowing his plans.

While some legal experts call Gascón’s reforms unconstitutional, Gascón claims the rules he changed were themselves unconstitutional.

Limits on Case of Fallen Officer

On Oct. 5, 2016, Owen’s husband, Sergeant Steve Owen, died in Lancaster. She described to The Epoch Times how the events leading to his death allegedly unfolded.

With a half-hour left on his shift, Owen responded to a call of a burglary in progress. When the suspect saw the police car arrive, he attempted to flee. Owen radioed in a description of the man and said he would attempt to detain him at gunpoint.

The suspect, 27-year-old Trenton Trevon Lovell, then allegedly shot Owen with a stolen gun, disabling him. Lovell is said to have walked over to the fallen officer and shot him multiple times in the face, then in the badge.

When another deputy arrived, Lovell was trying to remove the firearm from Owen’s body. That’s when he got into the slain sergeant’s car and crashed into the oncoming deputy.

Lovell ran away and broke into a nearby residence, where he held two girls at gunpoint for over an hour before officers were able to apprehend him.

Lovell was on parole, with two strikes on his record. After Steve Owen’s death, he faced a number of charges in addition to murder, including a special circumstances allegation for murdering an on-duty peace officer, felony possession of a firearm, attempted murder, two counts of first-degree robbery, and two counts of false imprisonment by violence.

Prosecutors were working to present evidence that could lead to the death penalty or life without parole.

But under Gascón’s new policies, those options are off the table because they forbid enhancements, which are additional charges or penalties based on the gravity of the crime or the defendant’s criminal history. Lovell can only be charged with murder.

“If we were to go to trial on my husband’s case, the maximum we can look at now is just murder, without any enhancements, which calls for a 25 to life sentence,” said Tania Owen, who is a retired 32-year veteran of the LA County Sheriff’s Department. “And what does 25 to life mean? In reality, it means that in 20 years, he could walk the streets before the age of 50.”

Former DA: ‘It’s Not Legal’

Owen’s attorney and former LA District Attorney Steve Cooley told The Epoch Times that Gascón’s policies will impact thousands of cases.

“He’s basically emasculated the case, all because of his ‘philosophy,’” said Cooley, who was the county’s district attorney from 2000 to 2012.

Epoch Times Photo
Then-Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley speaks during a news conference on Sept. 21, 2010. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

“They’ve taken an ideology and they’re forcing it onto a system of laws, and I think that their approach is going to be challenged in various ways. It’s like putting a square peg in a round hole—it’s not gonna fit. It’s not legal. It’s not ethical.

“This is revolutionary, literally. And unconstitutional, too, which he doesn’t realize; illegal, which he doesn’t quite appreciate; and unethical, which will be dealt with in due course. He’s not obeying state law. This is so unusual, what he’s doing, that people are still trying to absorb it. They’re shell-shocked with his policies.”

Gascón’s Approach

Since the backlash against his reforms, Gascón has made some adjustments.

Although Gascón didn’t immediately reply to The Epoch Times’ inquiries, he has publicly stated his position on the reforms and the backlash.

“While most have welcomed the reforms I have implemented, some have shared their concerns,” Gascón wrote in a Dec. 18 letter to the community. “To be responsive to your input I have decided to make some adjustments to my initial directives.”

Gascón said almost all the concerns centered around his policy to end enhancements.

“Enhancements have never been shown to enhance safety, but excessive sentences have been shown to increase recidivism and drive future victimization,” he wrote, citing a 2015 study from the University of Michigan that analyzes the impacts of incarceration on criminal behavior and labor market activity.

“Enhancements are also three times more likely to be applied to defendants who are African American or mentally ill.”

Epoch Times Photo
George Gascón (2nd L) speaks at a Reform LA Jails Summit + Day Party in Pasadena, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2019. (Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Patrisse Cullors)

Gascón said he would now permit deputy district attorneys to file enhancements in cases that involve children, the elderly, and hate-motivated crimes.

In his original Dec. 7 directive, Gascón said enhancements were a legacy of California’s “tough on crime” era, and many of them are “outdated, incoherent, and applied unfairly.”

“I recognize there are some victims that want this office to seek the maximum sentence permissible in their case, but punishment must be in the community’s best interest, proportional, and it must serve a rehabilitative or restorative purpose.”

Modifications ‘Very Minor’

Attorney Sam Dordulian, who represents several families of crime victims in LA, said the adjustments to the reforms don’t go far enough.

“I’m happy that Gascón is slightly flipping on his policies, but his modification is very minor and will only impact a small number of cases,” Dordulian told The Epoch Times.

He said this adjustment will directly impact one of his cases, which involves a 6-month-old who suffered a skull fracture and will have a permanent brain injury.

Dordulian said he is alarmed by the effective elimination of the Three Strikes law by Gascón’s enhancements reform. The law gives defendants a sentence of 25 years to life if convicted of three violent or severe felonies.

He also criticized Gascón’s unorthodox approach to enforcing his policies by drafting scripts deputy district attorneys (DDAs) are required to read regarding cases where enhancements are proposed.

Telling Deputy DAs What to Say

A portion of the script reads, “It is the position of this office that [these 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.”

Dordulian said via email: “He doesn’t have the power to declare things unconstitutional.

“He is supposed to accept what the judiciary branch declares is constitutional. He’s refusing to accept it. So now, he is both the legislature in his decrees, the judiciary, and the executive branch all rolled up in one.

“It’s truly frightening how little regard he has for the rule of law and separation of powers. He is acting as a tyrant and making his own rulings on the constitutionality of laws that have already been ruled upon.”

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami is one of the DDAs speaking out against Gascón.

“They are sending people to court to monitor what we say. They are working with the public defenders and alternate public defenders to intimidate us and document what we do and what we say,” Hatami told ABC.

Some DDAs are moving to file a state bar complaint against Gascón.

Unconstitutional?

Dr. John Eastman, a constitutional scholar at Chapman University, told The Epoch Times that Gascón’s statements about enhancements being unconstitutional are “preposterous.”

“The Supreme Court of the United States already upheld the Three Strikes law [in] Ewing v. California (2003),” he said. “Moreover, his position violates … the California Constitution.”

Eastman referred to Article III, Section 3.5, which states that “an administrative agency … has no power to declare a statute unenforceable [or] unconstitutional.”

Gascón said during a Dec. 16 Zoom conference: “In the cases where we believe that a law is unconstitutional, we actually have both a legal and a moral obligation to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

“I have a strong reason to believe [my policies] are legal, and they’re appropriate, and [if] we need to challenge the constitutionality of state law, we’re going to do so, and that’s clearly within the power of the district attorney.”

Recall Effort

Cooley said there’s “a very robust effort to recall [Gascón].”

“I think Angelenos will wake up, realize that the election of Gascón was a disaster, a train wreck, and they’ll fix it by recalling him. But in the meantime, the system is in complete turmoil.”

Owen is helping in the effort to gather the 460,000 signatures needed for the recall petition. It can only be submitted after Gascón has been in office for 90 days.

David Robinson, president of the California State Sheriff’s Association, told The Epoch Times that while Gascón’s “policies and ideas have drawn a lot of news media attention, it is the voters who will ultimately decide if this is the direction they support.”

“We have to trust that the local voters will decide if those persons represent the interests of their community as a whole during their time in office,” he said.

A spokesperson for LA County Sheriff’s Department told The Epoch Times that Sheriff Alex Villanueva wouldn’t be available to comment on Gascón’s policies.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer has publicly criticized Gascón’s policies.

“Orange County is right next door and I cannot allow what’s happening in Los Angeles to spill into Orange County,” Spitzer wrote on Twitter on Dec. 17.

“I have been an advocate for victims for the last 30 years. Policy changes that eliminate sentencing enhancements and prohibit ‘broken window’ crimes from being prosecuted not only jeopardize public safety, it puts more people at risk of being victims of crime.”

Among those who support Gascón’s reforms is LaNaisha Edwards, whose brothers were murdered and who now works in LA with the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice advocacy group.

“I am not just about ‘everybody needs to get out of prison, and we don’t need to prosecute people,’” she said at the Dec. 16 meeting of Gascón’s Crime Victims Advisory Board. “That’s not what [is] happening here. I think that it’s important in these moments that we really focus on the things that are being done in the victim-services department.”

Susan Hess, a clinical associate professor at University of Southern California, said at the meeting, “We know hurt people hurt people. … The criminal punishment system … does not heal, it provides more trauma.”