Gascón to Disband DA Unit that Notifies Victims of Assailant Parole Hearings

A spokesman for the D.A.’s office told LAMag of the reversal that victims also have a right to not be contacted about these hearings

At a Tuesday meeting, a representative of Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón told prosecutors that a long-held policy in which the office notifies victims of crime (or next of kin) that a parole hearing is scheduled for the inmate that harmed them or their loved ones, has been repealed. 

This news was then dispersed through an email that was sent by a supervisor who’d attended the meeting of the Parole Division Bureau of Prosecution Support Operationsknown collegially as the “lifer” unit. According to the email, the DA feels it is “not appropriate” for prosecutors to notify victims of crime and next of kin of these upcoming hearings. 

In that email, the supervisor added that Gascón also directed staff to “wind down the Lifer Unit” in the months to come. 

Three deputy attorneys general have already been transferred out of the so-called lifer unit and are now assigned elsewhere, while two remaining deputies will continue to handle cases assigned to the unit through October, according to the email. 

“There will not be a November calendar issued, nor any additional forthcoming assignments,” the message read. 

This reversal in policy has yet to be publicly announced. A spokesman for the D.A.’s office told LAMag that victims also have a right not to be contacted about these hearings.

“After consulting with victim experts, we do not believe this is a trauma-informed approach. Contacting victims and their next of kin can be very triggering, especially if they do not welcome the intrusion. We consulted with the CDCR and they have advised and confirmed that it is their responsibility to contact victims who have registered for notifications and provide information and support to those victims,” the statement reads. 

Defendants found guilty of murder and other violent crimes served sentences of hundreds of years to life in prison. Victims or their next of kin didn’t register for notification of parole hearings as they had little reason to expect a parole hearing would ever occur. 

But a cascade of criminal sentencing reforms at the state and county level in recent years—such as so-called elder and youthful parole and resentencing statutes have been coupled with Gascón’s own scrapping of enhancements for things like hate crimes, gangs, and firearm allegations.

Of all the sweeping changes Gascón has made since taking office, some involving the shifting of duties toward victims have set off some of the biggest firestorms.

For decades, the prosecutor’s office routinely notified victims of crime or next of kin when a parole hearing was upcoming. The D.A. also sent representatives to hearings to argue against the early release of offenders. A Gascón edict from February 2021 did away with the latter policy; this week’s announcement has seemingly now done away with the former.  

“George Gascon first said that D.D.A.s wouldn’t be allowed to go to parole hearings—but that victim advocates could assist victims,” longtime prosecutor Jon Hatami, who focuses on child abuse cases, said in a statement. “His administration then froze D.D.As’ access to state prison records so victims are not prepared for what they might hear during the parole hearing. Now, he will not even assist with notifying victims that a defendant is up for parole.”

Hatami, a leader of the effort to recall Gascón and who is suing his boss for libel, defamation, retaliation, and the creation of a hostile work environment, was not the only current L.A. prosecutor to take aim at the as-yet-unannounced policy change. 

On Twitter, County Deputy D.A. Ryan Erlich remarked: “[Gascon] has done a bunch of terrible things since Dec. 2020. But turning his back on the families of victims of violent crime is beyond callous. If he had EVER tried a homicide, he would know that we have a moral duty to, at least, support those folks at parole hearings.” 

On Facebook, retired deputy DA Marc Debbaudt quoted from the section of the penal code intended to “ensure that all victims and witnesses of crime are treated with dignity, respect, courtesy, and sensitivity.”

Duties of the lifer unit include keeping victims and families of victims informed and keeping the county in line with the rights of crime victims enshrined in the California constitution. 

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, a recall supporter, said she was “disheartened” at the DA’s latest decision. “The district attorney’s policies continue to deteriorate public safety while eroding the protection that is rightly owed to victims,”  Barger said.

The latest controversy comes as L.A. County election officials are verifying signatures to see if the recall of Gascón qualifies for the November ballot. 

By pulling the plug on the unit charged with keeping the county in line with the rights of crime victims enshrined in the California constitution, Gascón appears to be thumbing his nose at detractors who view his dizzying set of reforms—from suspending the death penalty to getting rid of cash bail—as being “soft of crime.”  

As LAMag reported on Tuesday, the Recall George Gascón effort, which is headed by families of crime victims and deputies from the D.A.’s own office, turned in 715,833 signatures to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder. At least 566,857 valid signatures are required to qualify the recall of Gascón for the November ballot.

In a fundraising appeal on behalf of the anti-recall group Stand with Gascón, the D.A. said to supporters, “You sent me to the D.A.’s office to reform the criminal justice system—by ending mass incarceration, ending cash bail, ending the death penalty, and protecting our communities by holding cops accountable. That’s what I’ve done — and that’s what I’ll continue to do as D.A.”

The deadline for an official decision from election officials is August 17.

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