November 29, 2021

George Gascón’s policies are based in science and backed by voters

View Original Notice ? George Gascón’s policies are based in science and backed by voters

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Last year, Los Angeles County voters overwhelmingly decided to embrace a new approach to criminal justice when they elected George Gascón as their District Attorney. The cries for law enforcement accountability last summer rang loud and undoubtedly helped fuel Gascón’s election, but the rationale for change was also rooted in commonsense and public safety.

In the eight years preceding Gascón’s election, Los Angeles imprisoned more people per capita than 56 of California’s 58 counties, yet violent crime rose 25 percent. Between 1990 and 2009, California increased sentence lengths for violent crimes by 63 percent. Today, more than 72,000 people in California’s prisons are serving a sentence lengthened by additional time on top of standard – and often already decades-long – sentences; 82 percent of these individuals are people of color.

LA’s past “tough-on-crime” approach of incarcerating more people for long periods of time has not made our communities safer. Instead, the policies of mass incarceration have produced insecurity and instability. Fully 95 percent of the people we send to prison will come home, yet we ignore the science around what works. Research has consistently shown that longer sentences can actually make individuals more likely to commit future crimes, just as we know that engagement of the criminal justice system often exacerbates underlying problems that need treatment rather than a jail cell.

When confronted with the reality that harsh carceral policies don’t achieve safety, tough-on-crime advocates instead proclaim that locking people up for decades represents “justice” for victims and is what victims demand. But the facts show otherwise.

A survey of violent crime victims in LA County found that survivors overwhelmingly support criminal justice reforms like Gascón’s that emphasize rehabilitation and crime prevention over more incarceration. That’s no surprise: we’ve poured billions into incarceration while spending pennies on the dollar for services to help victims of crime heal from trauma or interventions known to prevent crime in the first place.

As Trino Jimenez, whose brother Julio was murdered, aptly wrote, “[I]ncarceration alone will not allow victims to recover from our trauma and pain. [Gascón] understands that what we want is investment in our communities, in our healing, and to do everything we can to make sure that what happened to us doesn’t ever happen to anyone else.”

Gascón’s policies reflect those sentiments – shared by many crime victims – and his actions demonstrate his commitment to listening to crime survivors. Within days of taking office, he issued policies protecting victims, including directing that victims need not testify to receive services. He also established the DA office’s first Crime Victims Advisory Board, offering a voice to crime survivors.

Gascón is not alone in advancing change. Across conservative and liberal jurisdictions alike, reform-minded prosecutors are being elected on platforms that embrace data and reject unsubstantiated alarmist rhetoric. These prosecutors, like Gascón, are making decisions based on science establishing that their reforms enhance safety while reducing systemic disparities.

Indeed, Gascón’s policies on kids in the justice system, sentencing enhancements, the death penalty, misdemeanors, bail and more, are all rooted in data showing that these policies not only preserve limited resources, but also reduce rates of reoffense and victimization. That is how you build stronger, healthier communities.

Likewise, Gascón’s policy of not sending prosecutors to parole hearings makes sense. The purpose of parole hearings is not to relitigate the case, but rather determine whether people are “suitable for parole” — meaning sufficiently rehabilitated to safely reenter society. Prosecutors have no knowledge of how the individual has grown and changed in prison — the experts are those who work behind bars and monitor behavior in prison. Those experts know what they’re doing, as less than 1/2 of 1% of lifers released by the parole board and Governor commit new violent crimes.

These are inconvenient truths for Gascón’s critics, many of whom are traditional prosecutors attempting to justify dated thinking. As former prosecutors ourselves, we have recognized the faults of past practices and embraced a new way forward. It’s time for others to do the same.  Yet absent data or support, opponents of reform are left simply echoing calls of past decades for punitive retribution.

Should the state seek more punishment at exorbitant economic and social cost, even if it doesn’t make us safer? For prosecutors like DA George Gascón, the answer is no, but ultimately this is a question for the voters. And through a general election and recall attempt, the voters have made clear that Gascón’s approaches, grounded in data, are what they want. Those fighting for the status quo would do well to try to understand why, rather than continuing to stand in the way of meaningful reform.

Gil Garcetti is a former Los Angeles County district attorney. Ira Reiner is a former Los Angeles County district attorney and former Los Angeles city attorney. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.

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