As Crime Shoots Up Across L.A., A Defiant D.A. Sticks to His Guns

At a combative press conference surrounded by progressive DA’s from around the country, George Gascon insisted his controversial policies had nothing to do with the city’s spiraling crime rates

As spiking crime rates across the city continued to make headlines, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon defiantly took the stage at a press conference yesterday and insisted that his progressive reforms to the city’s criminal justice system would not be altered by public pressure. The occasionally combative press conference,  billed as a celebration marking the DA’s first year in office, was streamed live on the DA’s Instagram. It came after a rash of increasingly brazen robberies and home invasions targeted some of L.A.’s toniest shopping districts and neighborhoods, from a Nordstrom outpost at The Grove to a packed Christmas party in Pacific Palisades. In the process, the reform-minded D.A. has come in for withering criticism from victims groups and political opponents. When a reporter asked Gascon how much his progressive policies had contributed to burgeoning crime rates, the 67-year-old prosecutor was emphatic.  “Actually, none!” he replied.  He then went on to admonish his opponents for “turning every tragedy into a political football”  rejecting claims by outside critics—and some of his fellow prosecutors—that the crime wave has been exacerbated by changes to longstanding department policies that minimize jail time for all but the most hardened criminals and serious crimes.

The murder of Beverly Hills philanthropist Jacqueline Avant, wife of Motown Music mogul Clarence Avant, during a robbery inside the couple’s Trousdale Estates home on Dec. 1, has intensified calls for Gascon to make an exception to his position that incarceration is a last resort and that the shortest jail term is almost always preferable. Avant, a philanthropist who contributed heavily to projects in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, was the mother-in-law of Netflix president Ted Sarandos.

Most of the 90-minute event was devoted to celebrating what Gascón views as major achievements during his first 12 months in office — and to the D.A.’s refusal to back down amid mounting crime and criticism. “Let’s be grounded in reality because fearmongering and misinformation doesn’t enhance public safety,” he said.

Gascón was joined at the press conference by dozens of fellow progressive D.A.s from across the country, who flew in from cities like Chicago; Washington, DC; Burlington, Vt.; and Reston, Va. in a show of support for their embattled colleague. Among his supporters were Cook County, Ill., State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Suffolk County (Boston) District Attorney Rachael Rollin, the latter of whom had just been confirmed by the Senate earlier that morning as the new United States attorney for Massachusetts. After some opening comments, they looked on grimly as the D.A. spent the next hour parrying with sometimes skeptical reporters.

The D.A. angrily dismissed “this unscientific idea” that enhanced prison sentences serves as a deterrent to crime or further gun violence. And while he effusively praised Avant for her charitable endeavors, he showed no willingness to make her murder the first exception to a controversial rule he implemented a year ago barring prosecutors from seeking enhanced jail time for crimes involving “special circumstances.” Previously, L.A. prosecutors sought and received harsher sentences for certain “hate crimes” gang-related offenses and break-ins involving firearms. He assigned partial blame for the Avant murder on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for falling short in its mission to rehabilitate Aariel Maynor, the two-strike felon and recently parolee arrested on Dec. 1 for allegedly robbing the Avant home and shooting the 82-year-old Jacquelyn to death with an AR-15.

Under the old rules,  the D.A.’s Office could have pursued additional jail time for Maynor for a series of Special Circumstances including murder committed in the course of a robbery and  multiple strikes under Three Strikes law. Instead Maynor, 29, was formally charged with murder, as well as two counts of residential burglary with a person present. Maynor’s arraignment, initially scheduled for Tuesday,  was delayed as he recovers from injuries he sustained in a subsequent home invasion in the Hollywood Hills.

While the Avant murder has drawn outsized scrutiny, Gascon went on to note that most victims of crime in Los Angeles rarely make the headlines. Homicides and gun violence in L.A. have shot up by more than 50 percent over the past two years, and a concurrent spike in home invasions and smash-and-grab robberies have contributed to a much-diminished sense of security across the city. A recent Los Angeles Times poll of L.A. County residents found that 40 percent reported feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods. As of Nov. 27, the number of homicides stood at 359, eclipsing last year’s year-end total of 355, according to LAPD.

“The reality is homicides are up, and that is unacceptable, and we must deal with it effectively,”  acknowledged Gascon.  “But we will not be effective unless we deal with the root causes of homicide. Prevention and intervention are always going to be a much better tool. But when we have to prosecute someone we will. As in the case of Jacqueline Avant, where this young man is facing quite frankly, the majority of his life in prison.”

But the prosecutor added: “You’re not going to see me pounding the desk and saying we have to go back to [the sentencing policies of the] the 80s or 90s. Nor am I going to tell you that we need to bring back cash bail,” which Gascon eliminated when he took office.

Instead, Gascón cited the part his policies have played in the rollback of “mass incarceration” and expressed belief in ways “people can grow and change.” But that’s not likely to quell his critics. Last week some of them announced a new recall campaign against the District Attorney, who survived a previous recall attempt earlier this year.

One of the most outspoken supporters of the new recall effort, Los Angeles county sheriff Alex Villanueva, put the blame on the D.A.’s performance. “When he lowered penalties for criminal action and stopped prosecuting, he really doubled down on a bad idea. It’s playing out now in real time,” Villanueva said.

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