George Gascón may have survived the recent recall campaign against him, but the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s reformist agenda is running into the reality of crime rates soaring across the city.
The shocking murder last week of beloved Beverly Hills philanthropist Jacqueline Avant, wife of Motown music legend Clarence Avant, in a home invasion allegedly carried out by a three-time felon armed with an AR-15 who paroled from state prison in September, is especially vexing for Gascon. Avant was a longtime Democratic operative and a confidant of Bill and Hillary Clinton; the victim’s daughter Nicole is married to Netflix boss Ted Sarandos. In a statement, the Avant and Sarandos families expressed their gratitude to law enforcement’s diligence in swiftly arresting the accused killer, Aariel Maynor. “Now, let justice be served,” the statement added.
But Gascon’s vision of justice, upon which he campaigned to a comfortable victory over incumbent Jackie Lacey, may no longer be what L.A.’s fearful and pandemic-beleaguered citizens want.
With the support of Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the 67-year-old Gascon ran on a pledge to “turn the tide of mass incarceration and start anew.”
Since his ascension in December 2020, the former San Francisco D.A. has done away with cash bail, sentencing enhancements, charging of juveniles as adults and eliminated gang affiliation from sentencing. His office also no longer prosecutes suspects arrested for certain low-level felonies.
Now a rocky year-and-a half later, in the midst of a national crime wave, these same reforms are provoking outrage from victims’ rights groups, and even some of Gascon’s most ardent supporters are showing signs of buyer’s remorse.
The city has been rocked by smash-and-grab robberies where gangs of thieves storm high-end stores and make off with armloads of expensive goods, as well as a rash of “follow-home” robberies—some targeting celebrities like Real Housewives star Dorit Kemsley—and a steady uptick in property crimes like shoplifting and vehicle break-ins. Violent crime has risen for two years in a row, and this year L.A. is on track to record the most murders in the city since 2006.
Last week, as a rash of violent mobs in Los Angeles sacked one high-end store after another Garcetti seemingly threw Gascón under the bus, lamenting to reporters that committing a crime needs to carry a “penalty that doesn’t seem to exist right now. There’s no place for this kind of criminal behavior. It needs to be addressed. There need to be consequences. We need a jail system that will step up and do some of the rehabilitative work.”
The mayor’s new tough-on-crime rhetoric comes 17 months after he pulled his endorsement from former law-and-order D.A. Lacey and gave it to Gascón, setting off a wave of similarly timed renunciations of Lacey in the wake of daily Black Lives Matter marches across the city.
After high-profile mass burglaries of department stores in San Francisco and Walnut Creek, Governor Newsom thundered at press conference: “We want real accountability! We want people prosecuted, and we want people to feel safe this holiday season. I have no sympathy, no empathy whatsoever, for people smashing and grabbing, stealing people’s items, creating havoc and terror on our streets. None. Period. Full stop.”
Newsom’s dramatic reversal in tone comes less than 15 months after the governor—who as mayor of San Francisco chose Gascón to be both his chief of police and his interim district attorney—officially endorsed Gascón in the Los Angeles D.A.’s race. “
Flagging support from Garcetti and Newsom could spell bigger trouble ahead for the D.A. whose occasional mishandling of criminal justice reform includes scrapping sentencing enhancements for hate crimes (a move he later partly rescinded after it met with protest from LGBTQ groups) and clashing with his own county deputies who believe some of their boss’s policies violate state law.
Gascón emphasizes incarceration for what he says is the “shortest duration necessary.” In practice, he has yet to permit any exception to his ban on “special circumstances,” commonly known as sentencing enhancements, provided for under the law. Avant’s alleged killer Maynor already has two strikes under California’s Three Strikes Law, and with Gascón’s permission, prosecutors could charge him with murder, murder in the course of a robbery, and other allegations ensuring he would spend the rest of his life in prison. But Gascón has been reluctant to grant exceptions. One was the gun allegation filed against the shooter accused in the snatching two bulldogs belonging to Lady Gaga — adding five years to any future sentence stemming from that crime. Another was a reported trespass at the home of reality-TV star and self-identified Gascón admirer Kim Kardashain, brought by prosecutors despite the Gascón directive barring the prosecution of nonviolent misdemeanors.
Any day now, developer Rick Caruso is expected to declare himself a candidate in the 2022 election for mayor of L.A. For a preview of his campaign, look no further than the remarks he made before reporters at the Grove, his flagship property, as he surveyed the scene of the robbery the morning after looters smashed and grabbed their way through a Nordstrom at the mall. Police estimate that as many as 20 thieves hauled the loot away in four cars, leading police in freeway pursuit. All but three of the suspects got away.
“It’s a manifestation of deciding we’re going to defund the cops,” Caruso said in front of the boarded-up department store. “It’s a manifestation of deciding we’re not going to prosecute crimes. I see my city being torn apart because of bad decisions by leaders.”
Gascón has stayed mum on the subject. Asked by Los Angeles to comment on whether, as his detractors charge, the city’s crime wave has been exacerbated by his policies, the D.A. did not respond.