He’s Remaking Criminal Justice in L.A. But How Far Is Too Far?

Listen to This Article

Audio Recording by Audm

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

Last December, when George Gascón took over the largest local prosecutor’s office in the country, he made a complete break from the past. His inaugural speech as district attorney of Los Angeles County at once thrilled progressive activists and alienated many of the lawyers sizing up their new boss. Standing alone at a lectern as a pandemic precaution, Gascón put his hands to his forehead and half-bowed, yogi-style, to thank the judge who swore him in over a video connection. He flashed a smile and spoke in Spanish, his first language as a child growing up in Cuba, to honor his mother, who fled Fidel Castro’s Communist rule with his father and Gascón when he was 13.

Switching to English, Gascón, who is 67, acknowledged his long career in law enforcement. “You know, it was 40 years ago when I walked my first beat as a young Los Angeles police officer,” he said. “However, I am not the same man I was when I first put on the uniform.”

Then Gascón leveled an all-out attack on the status quo. The new district attorney described being arrested as “traumatic and dehumanizing,” lifting his hands for emphasis. “Our rush to incarcerate generations of kids of color,” he said, has torn apart “the social fabric of our communities.” Signaling that the police should expect new scrutiny, Gascón promised to review fatal shootings in the county by officers, going back to 2012.

He turned the argument for the “tough-on-crime approach” of other local law-enforcement leaders on its head, blaming their strategy for an eight-year rise in violent crime. He accused his opponents of making “unfounded and self-serving claims” about how more punishment increases public safety. “The status quo hasn’t made us safer,” he said, jabbing his fingers into the air.

In effect, Gascón was telling his new staff that they had been not guardians of the public, as they might have believed, but rather agents of harm. He backed up his words with an even more confrontational set of directives, delivered to every employee in his office over email before he even finished speaking, at 12:02 p.m. Gascón’s orders touched nearly every aspect of the criminal-justice system. He mandated an end to seeking cash bail, the death penalty, the sentence of life without parole and the prosecution of anyone younger than 18 as an adult. And in a rare, if not unprecedented, move by an American prosecutor, Gascón declared his intent to effectively end very long sentences — in pending cases as well as new ones — for some of the most serious crimes, including murder.

Along with reconsidering more than 10,000 pending cases, Gascón pledged in his speech to make “an unprecedented effort to re-evaluate and resentence” thousands of prison terms. He referred to at least 20,000 that were “far longer than those they would receive under the charging policies I announced today. That is one-fifth of California’s total prison population.”

Other district attorneys elected on progressive platforms have implemented some similar policies but stress that they are maintaining the discretion to make exceptions. Gascón, by contrast, gave blanket orders. Until the night before his speech, he told us, he considered giving prosecutors some leeway to bend his rules. “Do we fight one fight at a time?” he asked himself. No, he decided, because change would come too slowly.

Gascón’s speech was unmistakably aligned with the goals of the progressive activists who propelled his campaign. “We felt like, wow, we could have written that speech,” says Lex Steppling, the director of Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles-based group that urges sweeping reform of the “megacomplex of mass incarceration,” as Steppling calls it.

Inside the prosecutor’s office, about 900 deputy district attorneys (as rank-and-file prosecutors are called in Los Angeles) and an additional 1,100 staff members clicked through the nine attachments of orders, which would go into effect the next day. There were no explanations or scheduled question-and-answer sessions or channels for feedback. An employee, who works with victims, tried to make sense of the directives. (Like other employees of the office, she requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.) One in particular caught her attention: In California, prosecutors routinely add sentencing “enhancements,” which state lawmakers first created in the 1970s. When prosecutors charge them, enhancements can more than double a sentence, according to the Stanford Computational Policy Lab. For example, a murder conviction can carry a penalty of 25 years or 15 years to life, which can translate to fewer years behind bars. But prosecutors routinely use enhancements that add up to 20 years or even life, depending on the crime, if the offense is gang-motivated or involves the use of a gun. Another enhancement for prior convictions, called “strikes,” doubles the sentence. Now Gascón was instructing the office to jettison these enhancements as well as stop asking for life without parole.

Men’s Central Jail, which county officials and progressive activists want to replace with a village for mental-health care.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Reading the directives, the victim representative, who worked with the families of 50 people who were murdered, asked a deputy district attorney who sat nearby what the new policies meant for them. The enhancements would be dropped in every case, he said. Her supervisor told her to start calling the families.

“People were asking: ‘Why? What changed?’” she says of the calls to the families of those who had been killed. “Some people cried.”

To many prosecutors, Gascón’s speech and orders felt like a hostile takeover. They remembered an interview he gave during his campaign in which he referred to employees who might oppose him if he took office as “internal terrorists.” The image was indelible. “I heard that and thought, OK, I consider myself an honorable man,” a veteran prosecutor says. “The lines are clearly drawn.”

Even prosecutors and prominent lawyers who voted for Gascón now thought his approach was wrongheaded. “If you want to make sustainable change,” says one veteran of the office who supported Gascón, “you don’t treat people like the enemy. You build respect.” The doubts rippled outward from there. Some of them involved Gascón’s leadership team, which included several former public defenders, some of whom identify as prison abolitionists, rejecting the system they would now work within. “Huge reforms were needed in the culture of that office, and Gascón has good ideas,” says Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School who has worked with the office for years on innocence claims. “But he came in with his own people. Some were not familiar with the work of the office. Instead of getting to know the players and trying to change people’s perspectives, they came in and said, ‘This is the way to do it now.’”

In response to criticism, Gascón issued an order allowing for exceptions to certain directives in a small number of narrow circumstances. It didn’t mollify most of his critics. The deputy district attorneys forged ahead with an extraordinary act of collective defiance: Their union filed a lawsuit to block his directives against using sentencing enhancements. This was the first time a progressive prosecutor faced this sort of direct challenge from inside his or her office. The deputies argued that their new boss was ordering them not just to do something they thought was wrong, but to violate their oath and break the law.

In the last year and a half, the work of reform-minded prosecutors across the country has been complicated by a spike in killings. The murder rate remains far below the terrible peaks of the 1980s and ’90s, and crime overall has fallen slightly. The escalation is national — in small as well as big cities — affecting places with more traditional prosecutors as well as those like Los Angeles. And the rise in violence, which also includes an increase in aggravated assault, has coincided with the anomaly, and profound dislocation, of the pandemic.

But while there is no clear evidence that the progressive policies of prosecutors are responsible for the rise in violence, no one knows for sure what is causing it or how to reverse the trajectory. (Such uncertainty bedevils the search for the cause of any momentary crime trend.) Tough-on-crime advocates blame reform-minded district attorneys, accusing them of releasing the wrong people and making their communities unsafe.

It’s a well-worn law-and-order attack, repurposed from Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon starting in the 1960s, that is now being leveled against the self-identified progressive prosecutors, who have become a growing national phenomenon in the last five years. These new district attorneys have won in metropolitan areas all over the country, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco and St. Louis. They succeeded at the polls in large part as a response to the protests for racial justice that began in Ferguson, Mo., a few years earlier. Local organizers who wanted to hold the police accountable and end mass incarceration saw prosecutors’ offices as the best vehicle for taking political power.

The new breed of district attorney threatens a deeply entrenched system, with tentacles in multiple agencies and the backing of many of the police officers, judges, rank-and-file prosecutors and probation and parole officers who determine what justice, or at least law enforcement, actually means day to day. Some of those insiders stiffly resisted the calls for change. When Larry Krasner took over the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia in 2017, more than 100 lawyers and employees walked out the door; Krasner also dismissed 31 others. (Gascón, by contrast, couldn’t clean house: In Los Angeles, prosecutors have the rare benefit of civil-service protections and a union.) Local law-enforcement leaders in Kansas City, Kan., tried in 2018 to block District Attorney Mark Dupree from receiving county funds to review past wrongful convictions. In Boston, Rachael Rollins faced a bar complaint the same year from a national police group accusing her of “reckless disregard” for state law. Opponents inside and outside prosecutors’ offices also foiled change simply by slow-walking it.

The new district attorneys had to pick their battles. Most of them recognized a gap between “what it takes to fix the whole prison system and what the public is ready for,” says Jessica Brand, founder of the Wren Collective, a group of former public defenders who provide policy and research support to reform-minded prosecutors. They mostly took incremental steps — the low-hanging fruit of reform, so to speak — to send fewer low-level offenders to jail.

Barbie Perez, whose cousin was killed in Palmdale, Calif., by a 17-year-old in 2015. She is critical of Gascón.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

In most states, misdemeanor charges make up about 80 percent of the criminal docket, and nationally, 10.3 million people, many of them accused of nonviolent offenses, churn through local jails every year. Nearly two-thirds of the jail population have mental-health problems, according to estimates by the Urban Institute. So the new prosecutors pushed for more mental-health services, as well as drug treatment and stable housing. And in the first few years after their elections, district attorneys like Krasner, Wesley Bell of St. Louis, Kim Foxx of Chicago and Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn helped significantly reduce the jail population in their cities by largely ending the practices of locking up people for possession of marijuana or petty theft and demanding bail for nonviolent charges.

Mercy for violence, however, remained more sparing. Some reform-minded prosecutors treated it like political dynamite. When Bell took office in 2019, for example, he promised to expand alternatives to incarceration and end warrants for minor felonies while doing more to “aggressively prosecute serious and violent crimes.”

From 2016 to 2019, the reform-minded district attorneys benefited from falling crime rates. The welcome drop included murders and shootings as well as property crime and other offenses. As they headed into their first re-election cycle, the prosecutors had a win-win pitch: Despite all the prophecies of doom from their opponents, their efforts were saving money and improving lives without endangering public safety.

But the recent rise in violent crime has muddied the picture. In 2020, fear started to pulse through community meetings, local news coverage and casual conversations among worried allies, including mayors and City Council members. Suddenly on defense, the district attorneys struggled to keep pressing for change — to take risks. “It has absolutely made the job harder,” says Foxx, the state’s attorney of Cook County, which includes Chicago, who was elected on a platform of reform five years ago. “As macabre as it is, there were people who were waiting for this moment. It allows for the convenient scapegoating of prosecutors who advocate for justice reform.”

Foxx had to address a roughly 50 percent increase in murders and shootings from 2019 to 2020 while campaigning for re-election. Her Republican opponent ran a TV ad called “Too Many Children Murdered,” which quoted Chicago’s police superintendent saying there were “zero consequences” for some gun arrests. Foxx noted that the rise in murders and shootings mostly affected low-income families in Black neighborhoods. “A significant proportion of the victims we see have criminal backgrounds themselves,” Foxx says. “It’s an inconvenient truth for many who use the banner of victims that most of our victims have not been the ones they have empathy for traditionally.”

In the end, Foxx and Krasner, whose city’s murder rate also soared, won their re-election races handily. (One of us has a sister, Dana Bazelon, who works for Krasner as a senior policy adviser.) Their victories showed that district attorneys could stand for progressive change and survive a rise in violent crime.

But those elections differed somewhat from Gascón’s victory in Los Angeles: They suggested the political wisdom of making careful case-by-case decisions about releasing people who have committed serious acts of violence. In response to public outcry over a lenient plea deal to a man who shot and permanently injured a deli owner in 2018, for example, Krasner said his office made a mistake and created a policy to require prosecutors to consult with victims before reaching plea agreements in felony cases. Foxx reviews some sentencing offers her office makes in homicide cases but has not formally limited the length of punishment. “One lesson I learned in my early tenure,” she says, referring to tough-on-crime advocates, “is that if you make a pronouncement, they’re coming for you.”

Last February, Judge James C. Chalfant of Los Angeles County Superior Court delivered a blow to Gascón’s policies. The judge partly ruled in favor of the employees who sued him, finding that the district attorney did not have the authority to order his office, across the board, to stop seeking longer sentences when the defendant has a prior-strike offense. “The district attorney has abandoned the Three Strikes law,” Chalfant wrote. The crux of a prosecutor’s job is to exercise discretion; the judge rebuked Gascón for taking it away. He said that Gascón was asking prosecutors to take a position that was “unethical.”

Many deputy district attorneys felt vindicated. “He was wrong on the law, when we know we have to follow the law,” says the deputy who voted for Gascón. “And that was like, Holy smokes, he doesn’t understand the role of the prosecutor.”

In February, barely three months into Gascón’s tenure, a campaign to recall him began, with support, if often behind the scenes, from inside his own office. Because of the pandemic, Gascón wasn’t visible much. He mostly worked from home in Long Beach. Deputies who opposed him started tracking how often he came to the office, posting pictures of his empty parking spot on social media. Frustrated prosecutors and detectives also took a highly unusual step: They helped the families of homicide victims find legal help to fight Gascón in court. The central node in that effort was a single lawyer, Kathleen Cady.

After nearly 30 years of prosecuting offenses like sex and hate crimes, and leading a domestic-violence unit, Cady retired from the district attorney’s office in 2019 and spent much of her time volunteering with victims’ rights groups. Last winter, Cady was contacted by a woman who feared that a man who had threatened and stalked her would be released after two and a half years based on Gascón’s directive not to lengthen sentences because of prior convictions. It was a case that helped persuade Cady to come out of retirement. “I don’t think victims ever have the right to expect that whatever they want is what they are going to get,” she says. “But I try to make sure that victims aren’t forgotten.”

The woman showed Cady text messages that she had exchanged with Gascón. “I’m as good as dead if you do this,” she had written. Gascón responded: “If he attempts to contact you or disturb you in any way, please notify law enforcement. There is a protective order in place and no guarantee that he will be automatically released tomorrow.” Cady went to court as the woman’s lawyer, as California law allows for victims. They won, and the judge ordered the man to remain in prison, despite the prosecutor’s argument to release him.

After that ruling, more victims called Cady, and she agreed to represent about 80 for free, and recruited a group of 15 former prosecutors to represent about 120 more, also without charge. In effect, Cady was calling on former colleagues to create a kind of shadow district attorney’s office.

Cady says she is a lifelong Democrat who is “fairly liberal in many ways.” But she thought Gascón’s orders violated a prosecutor’s oath to use discretion wisely and were, “frankly, just lazy,” she says.

Gascón largely relies on data to defend shorter sentences. Studies have shown that as sentences lengthen, they produce a diminishing return for deterring crime. Though the data is somewhat messy, it suggests that most people who commit crimes age out of the period when they are at high risk of reoffending by the time they’re in their 30s. Other research finds that people become slightly more likely to reoffend after they’ve been incarcerated, for a host of reasons, including the fraying of family ties and the resulting barriers to housing and employment. These results hold across more than 100 separate studies, according to a 2021 meta-analysis. “The connection between lengthy incarceration and public safety is not there,” Gascón told us. “After six or seven years” behind bars, “you start to see the likelihood that you’re going to reoffend when you get released” go up “significantly.”

Concentrating almost entirely on how the state punishes nonviolent crime won’t get at the heart of the problem of mass incarceration, Gascón argues. The single largest group in state prisons, totaling around 55 percent nationally, have been convicted of crimes of violence, according to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University. As sentences have grown longer, the state prison population has increased fivefold since the 1970s, to nearly 1.4 million. In the ’70s, the average time served for murder in state prison was seven to eight years. In 2018, it was 17 to 18 years. “If we truly want a smaller prison system, at some point we have to talk about the long sentences for the most serious offenses,” Pfaff says. “Is it politically risky? Yes. But if no one does it, we never change the way we think about what justice demands.”

Gascón has also run into political headwinds by challenging the assumption that it’s his job to seek retribution for crime victims. “I don’t think the government is there to do that,” he says. He tried to address the needs of victims by setting up an advisory board, which meets regularly over Zoom. Most members supported the changes Gascón was making, says LaNaisha Edwards, who helps lead the committee. “It’s not like what we had before was keeping us safe,” she adds.

But some survivors of crime and their families continue to feel abandoned. “Some people will be hurt and crushed,” says Ferroll Robins, who for nearly 30 years has run a grief counseling center, Loved Ones Victims Services, in Culver City. “How much are you reaching out to those families? I don’t see Gascón reaching out a lot.”

For decades, victims have been the face of campaigns for harsh sentencing laws. In the early 1990s, the murders of Polly Klaas, who was 12, and Kimber Reynolds, who was 18, prompted a movement that led to California’s three-strikes law, which increased the state’s prison population by tens of thousands. The girls were white and middle-class — typical of the kind of victims who generate the most sympathetic attention.

Alisa Blair, special advisor to the district attorney of Los Angeles County.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

The victims Cady represents, or connected with other lawyers, were mostly Latino and Black. Gascón’s leadership team accused Cady of exploiting them. “What harmed people really want,” says Alisa Blair, a special adviser to Gascón and former public defender, “is to be able to sleep without nightmares, to be able to think of their loved one without falling apart” and to “live their lives with the confidence that they’re not going to be attacked.” She continues: “Kathleen Cady is a monster. There’s this pretense of a victims’ rights attorney — she is traumatizing these victims. She’s instilling anger.”

Last spring, Cady says, victims started asking her how they could help with the recall campaign. She directed them to organizers, who asked them to appear at rallies and news conferences. The recall was also a vehicle for Gascón’s leading opponent, Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff. The rate of solving murders and shootings — already a struggle in Los Angeles, as it is in many cities — dropped after the pandemic began. When few people are caught, research shows, perpetrators have a sense of impunity, and that can lead to more crime, as Jill Leovy’s 2015 book about Los Angeles, “Ghettoside,” illustrates. Perhaps to deflect attention from his department’s role in this dynamic, Villanueva started blasting Gascón for the substantial increase in homicides and shootings that continued after he took office.

Last April, Gascón’s supporters and opponents collided at a rally for National Crime Victims’ Week in front of the Hall of Justice, the building that houses the district attorney’s main office. Nathalia Marie Jackson, a 13-year-old Black girl, spoke tearfully from the lectern of her father’s murder. “The safety and security and love that he gave us every day,” she said, “was horribly interrupted in one single moment.”

A group of Black Lives Matter protesters stood at a distance on the sidewalk, blocked by police officers in riot gear from getting near the rally. “They want to drown out the voices of victims,” Villanueva complained. “They want to drown out law-abiding citizens.”

Some Black Lives Matter protesters chanted: “You’re being used! You’re being lied to!” The moment laid bare the fault lines between traditional victims’ groups and the progressive activists. The activists rejected putting the pain of survivors at the service of tough-on-crime policies. They asked why the rally didn’t include the stories of victims of police misconduct, who have benefited from Gascón’s policies. Speaking to TV reporters, Melina Abdullah, a local leader of Black Lives Matter and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, said that she, too, had family members who were killed. “Our interests and their interests are aligned,” she said of the survivors of crime across the square. “They should be standing with us.”

Los Angeles has attracted and repelled waves of reform since Watts erupted in 1965, after a drunken-driving arrest of a Black man by a white officer turned violent in front of a crowd. That year, a report by a governor’s commission found that large parts of the region resented and even hated the police. In the late 1980s, widespread corruption in the county sheriff’s office prompted promises of top-to-bottom change. In 1991, after several Los Angeles Police Department officers were filmed beating Rodney King, another report found that a “significant number” of officers in the department repeatedly used excessive force and that “the failure to control these officers is a management issue that is at the heart of the problem.” Yet several years later, more than 70 police officers in the anti-gang unit were implicated in unprovoked beatings and shootings and the planting of false evidence in what came to be known as the Rampart scandal. And in 2012, the sheriff’s department was rocked by the exposure of widespread violence and brutality in its jails. “For a state you’d think of as relatively liberal, and a liberal jurisdiction within that state, L.A. has been very slow to reform,” says Miriam Krinsky, who leads the group Fair and Just Prosecution, which works nationally with prosecutors on adopting reforms, and helped direct a Los Angeles citizens’ commission on jail violence in 2012.

That year, Patrisse Cullors, then a budding activist, was searching for answers about the severe mental illness that plagued her brother. He had spent years behind bars and was beaten in jail; afterward, his struggles intensified. Cullors started going to meetings of the citizens’ commission that Krinsky helped direct, signing up to speak about her brother and others like him. “Patrisse was there at every hearing,” Krinsky says, “at first alone, and then she brought more people.” Over time, Cullors became a national leader of Black Lives Matter, and other local organizers, including Lex Steppling, rose to lead a growing coalition Cullors founded called JusticeLA. The activists worked with religious leaders, academics and foundations, largely persuading the liberal establishment of Los Angeles to adopt the cause of dismantling the megacomplex of mass incarceration.

Among the biggest obstacles to reform in Los Angeles County are its size and governance structure. About 10 million people live in more than 80 cities spread out over 4,000-plus square miles. That’s close to the size of Connecticut, with nearly three times the population, but the county has no single elected executive to hold accountable when things go wrong. Instead, five county supervisors control the funding of its sprawling jail system, the sheriff is elected separately and the mayor of the city of Los Angeles nominates the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Despite the challenges, the activists have scored exceptional wins. In early 2020, they campaigned for a successful ballot initiative, Measure R, which increased independent oversight of county jails. That summer, the Los Angeles City Council cut the police budget by $150 million (a small fraction of the 90 percent cut that activists wanted). Last November, along with electing Gascón, voters passed Measure J, a major priority for the reform movement, which set aside a percentage of the county’s funds — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — for housing, mental-health resources and substance-abuse treatment programs in an effort designed to keep more people out of jail. And this June, the county Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to work toward closing Men’s Central Jail, the site and symbol of violence that has galvanized activists, and replacing it with a village for mental-health care.

But the victories could prove fragile. In May, to pay for more police officers as some violent crime rose, the city effectively restored the funds it took from the Police Department. A county judge ruled Measure J unconstitutional, saying that it took too much discretion away from the county Board of Supervisors. And promising to close the jail is not the same as offering sufficient alternative services that will make its closing feasible.

In 2019, when Gascón started exploring a run for district attorney of Los Angeles County, the office was a logical target for the activists who were gaining strength locally. During the tenure of Jackie Lacey, the incumbent and first Black person to hold the office, Los Angeles had a higher rate of incarceration than the state average, and prosecutors sought the death penalty in 22 cases, each time for a defendant of color. For most of the time Lacey was in office, fewer than 4,000 misdemeanor defendants, out of an estimated 100,000 a year, were routed to alternative courts focused on drug and mental-health treatment.

At first, meeting Gascón, the Los Angeles activists were wary. He had spent more than two decades in the Los Angeles Police Department, moving up the ranks (and earning a law degree along the way). He had been the chief of police in two cities: Mesa, Ariz., and San Francisco. He was appointed district attorney in San Francisco in 2011, when Kamala Harris left the position to become the state attorney general.

Gascón was elected later in 2011 and again in 2015, and as the district attorney of a liberal bastion, he participated in the progressive-prosecutor movement without emerging as a prominent leader. Lawyers took note that he had never tried a case in court. His office dismissed and sealed thousands of marijuana convictions, a standard example of picking the low-hanging fruit of reform. San Francisco police officers killed 24 people during Gascón’s tenure; he prosecuted none of them.

But while Lacey refused to meet publicly with Black Lives Matter and other activists, Gascón courted them. “We had never had that kind of relationship building before,” says Ivette Alé, who works with the reform group Dignity and Power Now.

Gascón benefited from liberal philanthropists, who matter for the viability of progressive district attorney campaigns. He raised a total of $12.4 million. The biggest donations came from the billionaire George Soros and Patty Quillin, who is married to Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix. Lacey, whose largest donors were law-enforcement unions, raised $7 million. In November 2020, Gascón defeated her with more than 53 percent of the vote and higher levels of support in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The former public defenders who joined Gascón’s leadership team saw a chance to answer to a different constituency than that of a typical district attorney. “Can there be a progressive prosecutor who does no harm?” says Alisa Blair, the Gascón adviser, who met him before he started his campaign. “I’m still not sure. But after pushing a rock up the hill as a public defender for 18 years, to come to a place where there can be sort of sweeping change, with the stroke of a pen, was really exciting.”

A month after Gascón announced his reforms, he put Blair in charge of implementing one of his most sensitive directives, which she helped write. It was the order ending the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, no matter the crime. Blair soon oversaw about 80 cases in which the office, under Jackie Lacey, had filed motions to transfer teenagers to adult court on charges of murder or other violence. There were an additional 20 cases in which teenagers had been sentenced for violent crimes in adult court but had won appeals that gave the district attorney’s office a chance to reconsider.

In the United States, young people are shielded far more in theory than in practice from the most punitive consequences for committing crimes. Since the first juvenile court was established in 1899, states have recognized that until the age of 18, teenagers are less morally culpable and have the capacity to change. Juvenile justice sets rehabilitation as its main goal. In recent decades, brain science has shown that adolescents — and in fact, people in their early 20s — have not fully developed the functions of impulse control and thinking through consequences. A state most powerfully expresses the belief that youth affords the possibility of redemption by setting a categorical limit, in time, on punishment. By law, the California Division of Juvenile Justice generally must free the young people it holds when they turn 25.

To try a minor as an adult is to set aside these principles. But many states routinely move young people who are accused of committing serious violent crimes to the adult system, where rehabilitation is often scant and punishment can be never-ending. At stake in Los Angeles, Gascón says, is the fate of 300 to 400 teenagers a year. If they went to adult prison, they “would probably fail the rest of their lives. Our community will suffer the consequences of that with their families. You’re talking about millions and millions of dollars” and “probably more crime in the future, more victims in the future.”

Juan Meraz was one of the first defendants who came to Blair’s attention. He was sentenced to life without parole in 2009 when he was 16, after being convicted in adult court of killing two men and wounding another in a gang-related shooting. Then, in 2016, California voters passed a ballot measure, Proposition 57, which required a hearing and a ruling by a judge before a juvenile case could be transferred to adult court. (When Proposition 57 was on the ballot, Gascón, as the San Francisco district attorney, remained neutral on the measure rather than supporting it.)

A state appeals court ruled in 2020 that Meraz, who is now 28, was entitled to a transfer hearing because he never had one. Without it, he would be freed. Most prosecutors in the state handled cases like his by simply requesting a transfer back to adult court to maintain the long sentence. But Blair instructed the deputy district attorney in Meraz’s case, Amy Murphy, to do the opposite.

Meraz’s lawyer presented evidence of his exemplary record over 12 years in prison. Meraz got his high school equivalency diploma, completed a nine-month entrepreneurship program through Baylor University and earned 35 certificates for completing programs, including for anger management and parenting. He worked as a custodian and married a childhood friend. For his day in court, Meraz’s wife gathered nearly 80 letters of support from people willing to vouch for him.

Juan Meraz, who was sentenced to life without parole when he was 16. He was released this fall.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

On that day last February, Meraz listened to Murphy, the prosecutor, tell the judge that because of Blair’s instruction, this was her “worst day as a prosecutor.” The person wounded in the 2009 shooting, Jose De Jesus Santa Ana, rose to speak. “I don’t believe he should be free, but I do forgive him,” he said of Meraz. Family members of the murder victims, represented by Kathleen Cady, also spoke. One mother wanted Meraz “to pay for my son’s death.” Another person said she hoped he had changed and “gets a second chance to fix the mistakes.”

In September, the judge ruled that he had to release Meraz because Gascón’s office did not request a transfer hearing (and because the California Division of Juvenile Justice said it had no services for him). Meraz moved in with his wife and started coaching her son’s baseball team, telling the parents of the other children about his record. He started a job at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a California-based organization that is one of the most successful in the country at working with people while they are in prison and when they come out. Meraz drives men home when they are released. He took one to visit the beach for the first time, writing in the sand for the man, “Welcome home, Jose.”

The executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Sam Lewis, served 24 years of a life sentence for a gang-related murder. The California parole board freed him in 2012, on his ninth try, after Lewis participated in several rehabilitative programs and created groups for other people to prepare for their release.

For years, before Gascón’s election, Lewis went to parole hearings in Los Angeles for people who worked in prison to educate themselves. “The prosecutors would say they could not be rehabilitated,” Lewis says. “Well, if you believe that’s true, then I shouldn’t be here speaking to you.”

Gascón’s reforms made a second chance possible for Juan Meraz after he earned it. In all likelihood, without a new district attorney, Meraz would still be in prison. But the district attorney’s orders have also forced the release of people who have little or no record of rehabilitation. In some cases, Gascón seems to be creating a point of vulnerability for himself as an elected official, and perhaps for public safety.

One such case involves the defendant Andrew Cachu. On an evening at the end of March 2015, six weeks before he turned 18, Cachu drove with a couple of friends to Sky Burgers in Palmdale. The city, which is in the northern part of Los Angeles County, has about 150,000 residents, mostly white and Latino. Inside the restaurant, Louis Amela, who was 41, was waiting for food with his bicycle parked outside. When Amela saw Ernest Casique, one of Cachu’s friends, jump on the bike, he ran out and yanked Casique off it. Cachu got out of the car. As Casique and the other friend grabbed Amela, Cachu pulled out a gun and shot him in the back.

Barbie Perez, Amela’s cousin, raised three children just a few miles away from where he was killed. Through her own inquiries, as well as from the police, she learned that Cachu and Casique were in a pair of associated gangs. Now along with her grief, she felt afraid.

In May 2015, the district attorney’s office, led at the time by Jackie Lacey, filed murder charges against Cachu in adult court. While Cachu was awaiting trial, his brother Jorge parked near the car of a witness who was scheduled to testify against Cachu. While Jorge waited, another person in Cachu’s gang got out of the car and threw rocks through the witness’s car window. Jorge Cachu was convicted of intimidating the witness and went to prison.

Where Louis Amela was shot and killed in 2015.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Perez sat through every day of Cachu’s murder trial. When he was convicted of killing her cousin and sentenced to 50 years to life, she thought, “OK, justice is served, but we don’t feel like there’s ever going to be justice,” she said, sitting in her living room, where a large photo of Amela stands on a desk against the wall.

Like Meraz, Cachu won an appeal based on Proposition 57, and his case was sent back to juvenile court. In 2018, the prosecutor’s office made the standard move, under Lacey, of requesting a transfer hearing so a judge could return Cachu to adult court. But the case sat, and after Gascón took office, the deputy district attorney handling the case was instructed to reverse course.

Gascón told us that because the office would not ask to transfer Cachu to adult court if it was beginning the prosecution anew, it would also not do so now. “The question becomes, how do we unwind history?” Gascón says of Cachu, whose case his office suggested we follow. “Given what we know today and the way that we’re doing our work, would he be in the same place? And the answer to that is no.”

Other reform-minded prosecutors, like Krasner, have policies that weigh against treating anyone younger than 18 as adults but allow prosecutors to do so in rare cases. (Prosecutors in Philadelphia have obtained adult convictions and sentences for about 2 percent of juveniles who committed serious violent offenses during Krasner’s tenure.) These decisions are especially difficult, Krasner says. “When you have a young person involved in a homicide, you have very little to look at,” other than the crime.

In Los Angeles, the district attorney’s office focuses on whether a young person would be amenable to the services available to juveniles. “We have no evidence to suggest that he’s a sociopath,” Alisa Blair says of Cachu, “or that he’s going to be a serial killer, or that this was anything other than the response of a teenager, experiencing adolescent brain development.”

Gascón’s decision caused a clash with Amela’s family — and the deputy district attorney handling the case. In court last February, Barbie Perez, her son, Amela’s aunt and his best friend implored the judge to keep Cachu in prison. The deputy district attorney, Edward Wiley, rose to speak. Breaking with the position of his office, Wiley said that “no interest of justice” justified the order he received to withdraw the motion for the transfer hearing.

Wiley was soon taken off Cachu’s case. At the next court date in May, Blair appeared on behalf of the district attorney’s office. She argued that the judge had no authority to hold a transfer hearing without a request from the office.

Then an audio tape leaked to the local Fox channel, which played a phone call between Cachu and his mother that occurred minutes after his court appearance. “Andrew, you know who that was?” she asked. “That’s freaking Gascón’s — that’s Gascón’s special adviser. Oh, my God!” Cachu’s mother continued, “She’s good. She’s the one I’ve been emailing back and forth. She looked at me like, I got you, girl.”

Perez was also interviewed in the Fox segment. “My heart just aches knowing that the prosecution is not on our side anymore,” she said. On social media, Blair became the target of threats of “vigilante justice” and comments about her race and appearance. (She is Black.)

In early November, the district attorney’s office prepared to return to court. Gascón said that making a rehabilitation plan for Cachu was critical. “It’s not like he’s going to be released tomorrow,” he told us the day before the final hearing. “Obviously that will give us an opportunity to take rehabilitative approaches, stabilized housing, all of that. I just want to make sure that was clear.”

Gascón mentioned the Anti-Recidivism Coalition as a resource for Cachu. “The question is, how do we help this person right their moral compass and prepare to come home?” Sam Lewis, the group’s director, said in a separate interview. “Can we put him in a position to be part of organizations like ARC, get him on parole, help him succeed?”

The next day in court, Blair seemed to follow the path Gascón had sketched. She had asked Judge Brian Yep to transfer Cachu to the State Division of Juvenile Justice so he could receive rehabilitation services at least until May, when he would turn 25.

But Blair did not present evidence of how the services would benefit Cachu, despite the judge’s request that she do so at a previous hearing. In court, Yep seemed incredulous. He called the report that Blair gave him “defective.” Without proof that would justify placing Cachu with the Division of Juvenile Justice, Yep said he had no choice “but to have Mr. Cachu released today.”

It was hard to understand. Why did Gascón’s staff do little to prevent immediate release after the district attorney said that wouldn’t happen? Blair blamed Yep. It was “frankly inappropriate” for the judge to “try to place responsibility not just on me, but on the prosecutor,” she said.

Blair said she could not include the evidence the judge wanted because it didn’t exist. The Division of Juvenile Justice didn’t offer programs designed for someone Cachu’s age. “The reality is that the answer for Mr. Cachu is no, there’s really not services,” she said.

But that raised questions about the request the district attorney’s office made in the first place. And the outcome — no rehabilitative services for Cachu, who declined to comment — doesn’t appear to serve the goal of equipping people who leave prison to lead productive lives on the outside. (After we asked about it, the district attorney’s office contacted the Anti-Recidivism Coalition about Cachu.)

Gascón seemed unphased about gambling on a defendant like Cachu. “Look, I mean, everything that we do in my business is a risk, right?” he said. “If I take a 15-year-old, I send him to prison for 20 years, the risk is that when they come out at age 35, they’re going to be meaner than they were when they went in.” Gascón continued, “What we have been very good at in this profession is kicking the can down the road for somebody else to deal with it.”

In September, the recall campaign against Gascón fizzled, with fewer than half of the 580,000 signatures needed to prompt an election. But a second effort is now in the works, with prominent co-chairs: Steve Cooley, a Republican and former Los Angeles County district attorney, and Desiree Andrade, a Democrat and the mother of a 20-year-old who was beaten and thrown off a cliff to his death in 2018. (Three defendants in that case face maximum punishments of 25 years to life, instead of life without parole, because of Gascón’s policies.)

Nearing the one-year mark in office, Gascón has taken some steps in fulfilling the pledges that he made at the outset. His office has resentenced or is in the process of resentencing about 125 people. The county jail population has dropped about 7.5 percent (after falling more than that the previous year, mostly as a result of the pandemic). When asked how many fatal shootings by the police the office has reviewed, based on Gascón’s promise nearly a year ago, the office provided no answer.

Killings and shootings have continued to rise throughout the county in 2021, as they have elsewhere (with more than 1,790 people shot in the city of Los Angeles and much of the rest of the county this year, compared with about 1,530 last year). In response to worried residents, Gascón counseled patience. “No.1, the process that we followed for years hasn’t necessarily created more safety,” he said. His focus was on “long-term sustainable solutions” through “the reduction of recidivism.” He promised that “the more that you keep people from reoffending, the more safety you’re going to create in the future.”

It was an abstract response that didn’t fully address the moment or offer immediate reassurance. Gascón seemed OK with that. “I mean, people like me get paid to think a little further down the line,” he said.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the magazine and the Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law at Yale Law School. Her 2019 book “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the current-interest category.

Related Articles

Back to top button