When former San Francisco district attorney and police chief George Gascon was sworn in as Los Angeles County DA in December 2020, he promised to fix what he called a broken criminal justice system, one he said often victimized poor Black and Latino defendants without improving public safety.
“LA is the poster child for the failed tough-on-crime approach,” he said at the time. “The status quo hasn’t made us safer.”
Soon after taking office, Gascon proposed a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms that emphasized rehabilitation over punishment.
But following last year’s spike in homicides, and amid ongoing concerns about rising rates of violent crime in the region, a campaign to recall Gascon from office is now gathering steam, with a growing number of local officials calling for his ouster.
It’s an effort that closely mirrors the drive to unseat DA Chesa Boudin, Gascon’s progressive successor in San Francisco — a recall measure that goes before that city’s voters in June.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the anti-Gascon campaign needs to gather more than 560,000 signatures by July 6 to get its recall measure on the ballot — a threshold it failed to reach in a similar push last year.
“I want George Gascon to be replaced as district attorney because he is functionally, with his policies, endangering the public,” said Steve Cooley, a former DA in the county, who has emerged as one of the key leaders in the current recall effort. “He does that through his many, many directives that basically show great empathy and sympathy for criminals, especially violent and serious criminals, murderers.”
To turn public opinion against Gascon, recall backers are highlighting recent violent crime statistics, like LA’s 397 homicides in 2021, a 15-year high. Some of those incidents received an enormous amount of media coverage, like the December slaying of prominent philanthropist Jacqueline Avant — the wife of legendary music producer Clarence Avant — during a robbery attempt at her Beverly Hills home.
But Gascon’s defenders argue that recall supporters, like Cooley, are bent on portraying him as a soft-on-crime stereotype, a characterization they call wholly disingenuous given his deep law enforcement experience.
“DA Gascon spent 30 years as a police officer, 30 years in LAPD. He has dedicated his entire life to making the communities safe,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, a group that supports progressive DAs.
DeBerry believes the campaign to unseat Gascon is part of a wider effort among conservative law enforcement groups and donors to stop long-overdue criminal justice system reforms that are being championed by a new generation of prosecutors, like Gascon and Boudin.
“Well, I think there’s vested interests, right? A big majority of the funds coming into these campaigns are from police associations, police lobbying money,” DeBerry said. “And they have an approach that’s both based in their political beliefs, but also the benefit of having a large police force, a large jail system, a large probation system. All of those things create jobs for [their] members and continue their political power in the state.”
But Gascon’s critics say recent reform initiatives, like his vow not to pursue the death penalty in the most egregious cases, and his move to ban prosecutors from seeking enhanced sentences for defendants, undermine the deterrence effect of LA’s harder-line crime policies.
Gascon’s reforms also have created significant opposition within his own office. In February, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles, which represents about 700 rank-and-file prosecutors, voted 98% in support of Gascon’s recall.
And as the effort to replace him heats up, Gascon appears to be retreating from some past positions. He recently said he was open to trying as adults some juveniles who are accused of especially heinous crimes, and to seek life sentences without the possibility of parole for some adult defendants — both practices he previously vowed to ban.
When it comes to recall strategies, Cooley contends that unlike last year’s failed campaign against Gascon — one he says was run by “amateurs” — the effort this time around is better organized and funded, with a war chest of some $3.5 million.
The current campaign, Cooley adds, also benefits from growing public anxiety about safety, an issue he predicts will generate voter support from more suburban and affluent areas of LA County that traditionally haven’t worried as much about crime.
“I think you’re going to need, across the board, individuals that feel this is directly affecting me and I fear for my children, my family, my neighborhood, my community and, to a certain extent, my county,” Cooley said.
Meanwhile, Gascon and his allies are fighting back.
At a press conference in December to mark his first year in office, more than a dozen progressive district attorneys from across the country praised Gascon’s reform efforts.
“I am proud to stand alongside District Attorney Gascon, who is implementing smart, evidence-based policies that will deliver safer, healthier communities in Los Angeles,” said Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County, Virginia.
Gascon also used the moment to push back against critics, accusing them of political opportunism and undermining efforts to meaningfully improve public safety.
“Rather than turning every tragedy into a political football and blame game, I ask that those people join us,” Gascon said. “We can do better and go further if we all work together.”
But even some of Gascon’s allies argue he has often been flat-footed in effectively explaining his ambitious reforms to the public.
“Those that are against reforms are taking the narrative and steering it the way they want,” said Sam Lewis, the executive director of LA’s Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which fights to end mass incarceration in California.
Formerly incarcerated and having benefited from rehabilitation programs, Lewis says Gascon needs to find people who can talk in very personal terms about the toll the criminal justice system has had on poor people of color.
“I would suggest using surrogates like myself, people who have gone through our criminal justice system and have righted their moral compass, in many instances not because of the system but despite the system,” he said. “And you didn’t have to keep them in prison for 300 years.”