In other parts of the country, progressive prosecutors who are promising to end mass incarceration, abolish cash bail, dole out shorter sentences, and end the disparity in sentencing of people of color are remaking the criminal justice system. Up until now, this reform wave has yet to touch Los Angeles County. The current L.A. County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, first elected in 2012, has largely approached the job as a traditional tough-on-crime prosecutor. Now she’s got a serious 2020 primary challenger in George Gascón.
The former D.A. of San Francisco—who resigned his post on October 3 and moved back to L.A. County late last month—grew up in Cudahy (after his family immigrated from Cuba) and started his career as an LAPD beat cop. Gascon, 65, who’s rented a condo in Long Beach as he starts his campaign, spoke with Los Angeles from his temporary “office space” at a Blue Bottle Coffee in downtown L.A. about why he’s running and what he likes about being back in his hometown.
What brought you back to Los Angeles?
My mother lives here and she is having a lot of health problems including dementia. She’s 92 years old and she’s lived a wonderful life. And my two girls are here. One’s an attorney, and the other one is a teacher by trade, who does educational consulting working with Title 1 schools. Really, it was to get out of politics and go back home.
So what happened to make you announce your candidacy for D.A. here?
I started to get some calls, initially from friends, “Hey, you’re coming to L.A.? L.A. D.A. is a mess, would you consider running here?” Quite frankly, initially we brushed it off, not because I didn’t want to do it, but it’s just I thought, “We’re done with politics.” Then the calls increased in volume, some from people that were not people that I knew and other folks saying, ‘We’d really like to see the brand of criminal justice reform that you did in San Francisco here.’ Now we’re off to the races.
Today, I’m honored to be surrounded by my loving wife, and by my friends and colleagues in the community, as I announce my candidacy for Los Angeles District Attorney. Together we can move LA Forward! #GasconForDA #LADA2020 pic.twitter.com/680494eLth
— George Gascón (@GeorgeGascon) October 28, 2019
What do you mean when you say the D.A. office here is a mess?
L.A. is so far behind, we’re still doing criminal justice the way we did in the ’80s and ’90s. There’s no place in our business for cash bail anymore—we have a [D.A.’s] office here that’s very tied to cash bail. How do we deal with public corruption, which this office has been silent on? How do we deal with environmental issues? This office has been completely silent, but D.A.s have a role.
One of the things I did in San Francisco, we worked on illegal dumping that is harming our environment. I’m talking about major companies that are throwing dangerous waste into our trash and our space, that harm the environment. How do you deal with sexual assault on campus? We started a big program around sexual assault on campus in my prior office. It’s really in all these areas that this office has been really silent. In fact, you hear this office talk about the mental health programs that they have, but when you talk to the deputies in the field, you talk to a defense attorney, one of the first things they tell you, they never get offered diversion. The number of cases that get diverted to mental health is minuscule, compared to the number of people that are in county jail every day that are mentally ill. So even a lot of the things that they talk about doing, is all window dressing. There’s no penetration within the system.
“L.A. is so far behind, we’re still doing criminal justice the way we did in the ’80s and ’90s.”
What about concerns that crime will go up under some of these reforms?
Criminal justice reform and community safety are not incompatible. To the contrary, reform actually brings greater community safety. As you reduce re-offending, you bring people together to work towards more common goals, both socially and economically. When you look at the cost of incarceration, the cost of the criminal justice system, basically we’re sucking funding away from public education, affordable housing, infrastructure development, all the things that are so broken here. We’ve got the largest and the most expensive county jail system in the world. And for every year someone’s incarcerated, the percentage of likelihood that they’re going to recidivate [increases] somewhere between 4 and 5 percent. There’s a recent Texas study that just illustrated every year that you’re incarcerated reduces the likelihood that you will be able to recover, and increases the likelihood that you will be able to re-offend. You say, “Well, we’re going to send somebody to prison for 10, 20 years.” Well, guess what? They’re coming back, but when they come back, they come back at a worse place. Then they re-offend, and they victimize somebody else, as well as victimizing themselves.
What makes you passionate about ending mass incarceration?
People often will take a well-heeled person that was a victim of a horrendous incident as the face of victimization, and then they go after and they push for very punitive measures, they push for very large sentencing and all this stuff. What people often forget is the face of victimization in this country is usually poor, it’s people of color, and sometimes the people that get victimized, they end up victimizing other people. So one of the things that we need to realize, the cost is not only the immediate cost of policing, prosecuting, and incarceration. But it’s the downstream cost, where you have a person that now no longer will be able to provide for their family, and then the further downstream is now you have kids that do not have a parent at home, and then those kids themselves get into a cycle of negative models. Then the impact that it has on a community, where you’re reducing the tax base of that community at the same time that you’re increasing the tax burden in that community. So the economic cost of crime is substantial all the way across. That’s why I talk often about how sometimes very conservative voters, that would otherwise not hear this message, will, when you talk about what it costs to do this stuff.
Your opponent, Jackie Lacey, has been criticized for not prosecuting police officers. But you’ve also had similar criticism in San Francisco. Where’s the difference between the two of you?
The distinction is, first of all, when it comes to police officer shootings, the laws are incredibly permissive, I think unreasonably permissive. I think that it’s harmful both to the community and the police by the way, because when police officers are engaging questionable uses of force, it actually makes the community less safe for them too. The distinction between Jackie Lacey and myself is that I have supported efforts to create legislation that would reform that, where she has opposed it or remained silent on it. The other part is in the other areas, where the law is more conducive to being the application of prosecution when it’s necessary, like other than shootings, but in other areas like excessive force with baton use or other stuff, we have prosecuted those cases, Jackie Lacey doesn’t. So we prosecuted 22 or 23 law enforcement officers in the last few years from those areas, when we could. She hasn’t. I don’t say that to say that I’m proud, frankly, I would much rather get to a place where we never have to prosecute a police officer, because there is no need to, because they got the right training, the right supervision, and they are functioning in a way, as by the way, the majority of police officers do. Because also, you’ve got to remember, this is really a small group of people, the majority of the cops never use their firearm, other than in the range. They work very hard under very difficult conditions.
“When it comes to police officer shootings, the laws are incredibly permissive, I think unreasonably permissive.”
Did you have a typical tough-on-crime mindset yourself for a long time?
Yeah, well, totally. In the ’80s and ’90s, I was as much a part of the problem as anybody else. I think that the difference is, I grew out of it, I learned. A lot of the things that we did in the ’80s and ’90s, we had no idea that we were doing the harm that we were. When we started to prosecute and arrest juveniles as adults, the whole concept of the science of brain development wasn’t well known. We never knew that for instance, your brain at age 18 hasn’t fully developed.
Drug use in this country is equal across the social, economic, and racial lines and gender lines. Meaning, white people use drugs just as much, if not more than black people. But when a white young person from a middle-class or upper-class background experiments with drugs, the likelihood that they’re going to be touched by law enforcement is almost zero. If they get touched by law enforcement, usually they get taken home to mom and dad. The little black kid at 16 or 15 years old, that gets arrested for drugs, for some low-level offense, doesn’t beat it. First of all, they’re in a neighborhood that has a lot of policing presence, whereas the other kid probably never sees the police. This kid that gets arrested, they don’t get taken back home. They get taken to a police station, they get prosecuted, they get mixed up with kids that have broader problems, they never grow out of it. That’s what the tough-on-crime people don’t like to tell you, how much damage we do when we don’t look for another way to deal with the same problem.
I tell people, and people get offended by this too, but the criminal justice system is toxic. Sometimes we need to know when not to touch things. Our role should be reserved for the biggest, the problems that are the most worrisome, the problems that are more likely to harm a lot of people.
Did you have any wake-up calls in your career that made you want to be a reformer?
It was a combination of things. I began to see that some of the people that we were arresting were now the kids of people that we were arresting a few years before. I was in the police department. The other one was, quite frankly, reading, educating myself, and opening my horizon to other possibilities. And then finally, it was my own kids, having the honest conversation with one of my daughters one time during a run, where I was talking about how marijuana was a gateway drug, and she starts laughing. I said, “Why are you laughing about this? I’m very serious.” And said, “Dad, give me a break.” She said, “Your generation’s so hypocritical.” I said, “Well, are you telling me that because you think I smoked pot before? I did, OK, but I don’t anymore. But that doesn’t mean that I thought it was right.” She said, “No, dad. The problem is that marijuana’s not the gateway to anything, it’s like alcohol. It would be the gateway for some people, and not for others.” I said, “Well, you know, within your friends, do you have anybody using drugs?” “We have kids that are 18, 19, that are going through drug rehab.” I asked her, “Where’s the police in all this?” She said, “Well, we don’t see the police.” Immediately I had this flashback, I said, “Well, I work in neighborhoods, the kids are no different than my kids, other than they live in a different neighborhood. When they experiment with drugs or whatever, they get hammered.” So it was a combination of all these things that started to come together for me.
What do you enjoy about being back in L.A.?
Well, I’ll tell you, I love the water, I’m Pisces, so very partial to the water. I used to surf years ago, I would scare myself with a surfboard today. So we like to spend a lot of time near the water, doing whatever we can. I love working out, riding a bike, so we’re very outdoorsy by nature. I just wish we could get more public transportation and reduce our carbon footprint. We like also, quite frankly, we love cooking and spending family time cooking. We love good food, so the restaurant scene in L.A. is so incredible now. One of the things that I’ve always loved about L.A. is the diversity. The fact that you can go have the best Mexican food, you can have the best Chinese food, then the best Korean food, and the best whatever food. I know that San Francisco likes to pride itself in their diversity, but let me tell you something, there are 100-plus languages spoken in the L.A. Unified School District—try to beat that.