DA Gascón backs off controversial policies for murder cases, juveniles
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón backed off of two of his most criticized directives Friday, noting in a series of memos that there “may be the rare occasion” where special circumstance allegations may be “necessary” that could result in a life prison term without parole in murder cases and that juveniles may be selectively transferred to the adult court system in the “most egregious cases that warrant a state prison commitment.”
The new memos to his staff, released late Friday, come as the county’s top prosecutor has come under fire from families of some crime victims, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck and some prosecutors from his own office. Gascón is facing a renewed recall effort that was announced in December.
Just after being sworn into office in December 2020, Gascón announced a series of directives including one that called for dismissing, withdrawing or not filing special circumstance allegations in murder cases and another that vowed that the office would “immediately END the practice of sending youth to the adult court system.”
In one of the memos released late Friday, Gascón wrote that the office is “committed to never seeking the death penalty, eliminating mass incarceration, and fostering rehabilitation for those charged with crimes.”
“However, after listening to the community, victims and colleagues, I understand there may be the rare occasion where the filing of special circumstance allegations may be necessary. Accordingly, I will enact a committee to review the appropriateness of filing such enhancements in an extremely limited number of cases where the underlying facts are extraordinary and/or the victims are uniquely vulnerable,” Gascón wrote in one memo.
The committee — dubbed the Alternative Charging Evaluation Committee — will review cases where the handling prosecutor, head deputy and bureau director all agree that an exception is warranted to file a special circumstance allegation or allegations, according to Gascón.
The memo notes that approval to file special circumstance allegations will “only be granted in extraordinary situations where it is abundantly clear the defendant is beyond any means of rehabilitation and the crime perpetrated is deserving of this extreme penalty,” and that the office would then seek life in prison without the possibility of parole in cases where such filings are deemed appropriate.
The association representing more than 800 deputy district attorneys in Los Angeles County filed a lawsuit in December 2020 challenging some of Gascón’s directives, including a requirement that prosecutors seek the dismissal of special circumstance allegations in murder cases that were pending. The association contended that the moves were “unlawful.”
A judge ruled mostly in favor of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County last February, but subsequently put the case on hold while Gascón appeals. A trial date is scheduled to be set for the case in April.
Meanwhile, in another memo issued Friday, Gascón noted that under his December 2020 directive there is a “presumption that the office will not seek transfer to criminal jurisdiction” for juvenile offenders.
“However, in exceptional circumstances, criminal jurisdiction may be appropriate for youth offenders,” Gascón wrote. “The selective transfers of juveniles to the adult court system will only be in the most egregious cases that warrant a state prison commitment, where it is abundantly clear the minor poses a danger to the public and has serious difficulty controlling their dangerous behavior in line with the evaluation for extended Secure Youth Treatment Facility detention.”
A separate committee — the Juvenile Alternative Charging Committee — will review cases when presented with a recommendation from the prosecutor, the deputy-in-charge, the assistant head deputy and the head deputy of the Juvenile Division to proceed with a transfer hearing to adult court for cases originating in juvenile court.
Gascón has repeatedly defended his policies, saying his stances were well-known during his campaign and his election signified public support of his agenda.
“The district attorney is firmly committed to his principles. One of these underlying principles is to constantly refine what we are doing so that we can continue to enhance public safety in a thoughtful manner,” Alex Bastian, special advisor to Gascón, said in a statement after the memos were released. “This is what the D.A. has always done, and what he will continue to do. We are now more than a year into his term, he has listened to community members, victims and colleagues. Based on everything we have learned we are rolling out these policy adjustments.”
“We will stay true to our guiding principles and will continue to evaluate the work that we do to ensure that we are constantly evolving to further advance public safety,” Bastian added.