Meet George Gasc贸n, the Progressive Ex-Cop Challenging Jackie Lacey for D.A.

The former San Francisco D.A. talks about returning home and fixing the 鈥檛oxic鈥 criminal justice system

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鈥檚 got a serious 2020 primary challenger in George Gasc贸n.

The former D.A. of San Francisco鈥攚ho resigned his post on October 3 and moved back to L.A. County late last month鈥攇rew up in Cudahy (after his family immigrated from Cuba) and started his career as an LAPD beat cop. Gascon, 65, who鈥檚 rented a condo in Long Beach as he starts his campaign, spoke with Los Angeles from his temporary 鈥渙ffice space鈥 at a Blue Bottle Coffee in downtown L.A. about why he鈥檚 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鈥檚 92 years old and she鈥檚 lived a wonderful life. And my two girls are here. One鈥檚 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, 鈥淗ey, you鈥檙e coming to L.A.? L.A. D.A. is a mess, would you consider running here?鈥 Quite frankly, initially we brushed it off, not because I didn鈥檛 want to do it, but it鈥檚 just I thought, 鈥淲e鈥檙e done with politics.鈥 Then the calls increased in volume, some from people that were not people that I knew and other folks saying, 鈥榃e鈥檇 really like to see the brand of criminal justice reform that you did in San Francisco here.鈥 Now we鈥檙e off to the races.

What do you mean when you say the D.A. office here is a mess?

L.A. is so far behind, we鈥檙e still doing criminal justice the way we did in the 鈥80s and 鈥90s. There鈥檚 no place in our business for cash bail anymore鈥攚e have a [D.A.鈥檚] office here that鈥檚 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鈥檓 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 no penetration within the system.

鈥淟.A. is so far behind, we鈥檙e still doing criminal justice the way we did in the 鈥80s and 鈥90s.鈥

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鈥檙e sucking funding away from public education, affordable housing, infrastructure development, all the things that are so broken here. We鈥檝e got the largest and the most expensive county jail system in the world. And for every year someone鈥檚 incarcerated, the percentage of likelihood that they鈥檙e going to recidivate [increases] somewhere between 4 and 5 percent. There鈥檚 a recent Texas study that just illustrated every year that you鈥檙e 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, 鈥淲ell, we鈥檙e going to send somebody to prison for 10, 20 years.鈥 Well, guess what? They鈥檙e 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥檙e reducing the tax base of that community at the same time that you鈥檙e increasing the tax burden in that community. So the economic cost of crime is substantial all the way across. That鈥檚 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鈥檝e also had similar criticism in San Francisco. Where鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥檛. So we prosecuted 22 or 23 law enforcement officers in the last few years from those areas, when we could. She hasn鈥檛. I don鈥檛 say that to say that I鈥檓 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鈥檝e 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.

鈥淲hen it comes to police officer shootings, the laws are incredibly permissive, I think unreasonably permissive.鈥

Did you have a typical tough-on-crime mindset yourself for a long time?

Yeah, well, totally. In the 鈥80s and 鈥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 鈥80s and 鈥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鈥檛 well known. We never knew that for instance, your brain at age 18 hasn鈥檛 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鈥檙e 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鈥檛 beat it. First of all, they鈥檙e 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鈥檛 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鈥檚 what the tough-on-crime people don鈥檛 like to tell you, how much damage we do when we don鈥檛 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, 鈥淲hy are you laughing about this? I鈥檓 very serious.鈥 And said, 鈥淒ad, give me a break.鈥 She said, 鈥淵our generation鈥檚 so hypocritical.鈥 I said, 鈥淲ell, are you telling me that because you think I smoked pot before? I did, OK, but I don鈥檛 anymore. But that doesn鈥檛 mean that I thought it was right.鈥 She said, 鈥淣o, dad. The problem is that marijuana鈥檚 not the gateway to anything, it鈥檚 like alcohol. It would be the gateway for some people, and not for others.鈥 I said, 鈥淲ell, you know, within your friends, do you have anybody using drugs?鈥 鈥淲e have kids that are 18, 19, that are going through drug rehab.鈥 I asked her, 鈥淲here鈥檚 the police in all this?鈥 She said, 鈥淲ell, we don鈥檛 see the police.鈥 Immediately I had this flashback, I said, 鈥淲ell, 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.鈥 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鈥檒l tell you, I love the water, I鈥檓 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鈥檙e 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鈥檝e 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鈥攖ry to beat that.

RELATED: A Look at Which City Employees Are Reeling in Big Bucks

Stay up to date with everything you need to know about L.A. by聽following us on Facebook聽and聽Instagram.