A Judge Sides with Deputy District Attorneys Fighting a George Gascón Policy Change

Doing away with certain sentencing enhancements has been a key part of the new DA’s agenda

UPDATE: 5:30 P.M. – On Monday afternoon, DA George Gascón issued a statement addressing Judge Chalfant’s ruling:

On November 3, more than 2 million people in Los Angeles County voted for a system of justice based on science and data, not fear and emotion. Nevertheless, I never had any illusions as to the difficulty and challenges associated with reforming a dated institution steeped in systemic racism. My directives are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety.

While Judge Chalfant’s ruling does not impact the vast majority of my directives, the court did rule specifically on my Three Strikes policy. The ruling is novel in that it requires my office to apply the Three Strikes law contrary to the current practice in Los Angeles County and other jurisdictions across the state. Accordingly, our legal team will be fling a nice of appeal. Until the appeal is decided, my office will adjust its policies to be consistent with this ruling. 

We can no longer afford–morally, socially, or economically–to justify tough-on-crime policies in the name of victims when a majority of the survivor community supports rehabilitation over excessive sentences. The long-term health and safety of our community depend on it.” 

FEBRUARY 8, 2021, 1 P.M. – Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant has agreed to issue a preliminary injunction requested by a union that represents prosecutors against their boss, District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a series of Special Directives that told prosecutors to stop applying certain “enhancements” in sentencing.

“The Special Directives violate the Three Strikes law by prohibiting prosecutors from pleading and proving prior convictions in new cases. Prosecutors have a ministerial duty to allege all prior convictions under the Three Strikes law,” Judge Chalfant wrote. “The Special Directives violate Respondents’ duty to prosecute violations of general laws under Government Code section 26500, which is mandatory, not discretionary.”

The injunction will, at least for the time being, mean the District Attorney cannot compel the prosecutors below him to follow the Special Directives.

A petition to the court from the Association of Deputy District Attorneys accused Gascón of “legislating by fiat” by choosing not to enforce sentencing enhancements, directing prosecutors not to seek upgraded penalties, and reevaluating certain incidents of past sentencing in cases where individuals were given harsher penalties than would be issued now due to those enhancements.

The prosecutors union argued that by being told not to apply those enhancements, Gascón had “commanded his employees […] to violate numerous statutory mandates and refrain from performing their duties under the law.”

Following initial legal action by the ADDA in December, Gascón clarified his original Special Directive 20-08 to reinstate sentencing enhancements for cases of hate crimes, child abuse, sex trafficking, financial crimes, and elder and dependent adult abuse. That primarily left prosecutors with direction not to employ enhancements associated with prior convictions (including the Three Strikes Law), possible gang affiliation, and firearms.

In presenting evidence to Judge Chalfant, the District Attorney argued, in part, that it is the enforcing of enhancements that inappropriately ties the hands of prosecutors, not the other way around.

“In the experience of Monnica L. Thelen, Esq., a deputy public defender since 2005, the defense sometimes will make a counteroffer to the prosecution’s plea offer. Defense counsel may point out weaknesses in the prosecution’s case or may present mitigating circumstances that support the counteroffer,” the filing states. “On many occasions, prosecutors have informed Thelen that while he or she would be inclined to accept the counteroffer the prosecutor cannot do so because the prosecutor’s manager will not allow it.”

Gascón is largely joined in that argument by an amicus brief from the ACLU cited in today’s court filing, which argued that “ADDA’s interpretation of the Three Strikes law takes away this prosecutorial discretion in a manner that raises serious constitutional questions.”

The argument in favor of the Special Directives also asserts that they are at times used as a cudgel to pressure defendants, particularly juvenile offenders.

“Although most prosecutors review their cases and exercise their discretion to charge only the appropriate charges and enhancements, some overcharge their cases, piling on counts and enhancements,” the argument states. “For example, prosecutors routinely file gang enhancements for the most mundane crimes committed by gang members even though the crime was not committed for the gang’s benefit. This practice of overcharging and routinely filing felonies is particularly prevalent in juvenile cases. Prosecutors routinely choose to charge the most egregious of charges that impact the most vulnerable of clients.”

RELATED: New DA George Gascón Announces Big Law Enforcement Reforms on Day One

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