It’s a fundamental question these days among California’s leading district attorneys: Should the justice system serve criminals or their victims?
This question never arose seriously before now. Criminals, especially repeat offenders, were bottom priorities when it came to whom district attorneys aimed to help.
That matched the sentiments of California voters, who over generations passed one initiative after another toughening laws on the death penalty, the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law that targets criminals who keep preying on others and threw out a law that banned cash bail.
Voters also okayed mercifully-minded measures over the last 10 years, reducing some felonies to misdemeanors with much lower penalties and allowing for quicker release of prisoners. Those changes excluded serious and violent crimes, except where legal codes inexplicably classed a few violent acts – like sex trafficking – as lesser offenses.
Now come the new district attorneys of California’s most prominent and arguably most influential counties, Los Angeles and San Francisco. George Gascon and Chesa Boudin both are expanding on campaign promises to end cash bail locally, almost never cooperate with federal immigration authorities and seek reevaluation of possibly wrongful past convictions.
Gascon has become the more radical, ordering hundreds of deputies in the nation’s largest prosecutorial office to stop seeking sentence enhancements for career criminals and not to ask juries for death penalties, even for the worst crimes.
Gascon’s actions struck many of his deputies, some with distinguished legal and academic credentials, as illegal, running counter to California law. Their union sued and the other day got a superior court judge to rule Gascon’s ban on sentencing enhancements does violate state law. The ruling will almost certainly be appealed, its fate uncertain in higher courts.
Essentially, longtime Judge James Chalfant, whose decisions are only rarely overturned by appellate courts, ruled Gascon cannot force line prosecutors to ignore laws protecting the public from repeat offenders.
Meanwhile, the moves by Gascon, a former San Francisco police chief and district attorney, and his Bay Area heir Boudin, caught the attention of other district attorneys around the state. On Jan. 12, the California District Attorneys Association, which represents all but one of the state’s chief county prosecutors, wrote Gascon that “CDAA has grave concerns that recent policy directives (by Gascon) undermine California’s bedrock expectation that prosecutors will never abandon their obligation to advocate passionately for crime victims…These mandates ignore our laws and governing ethical standards.”
The prosecutors’ group added that Gascon gave “criminals in Los Angeles County…an unimaginable windfall.” Signing the letter were top CDAA officials Vern Pierson and Michael Hestrin, district attorneys respectively of El Dorado and Riverside counties.
Soon after his colleagues denounced his prior moves, the undaunted Gascon responded with another radical order. He told his deputies to halt their previously routine appearances at state hearings to oppose parole for prisoners with life sentences who have served their legal minimum prison time. So, for example, when Charles Manson “family” member Bruce Davis, the vicious murderer of musician Gary Hinman, came up for a hearing the other day, only the 81-year-old cousin of his victim was present to protest on the video conference. She is not a lawyer.
For decades, appearances by deputy district attorneys – especially those who originally prosecuted the lifers – helped keep major offenders imprisoned, where they could do no further harm to people whose lives their misdeeds already wrecked.
Gascon did this to fulfill a campaign promise to relieve crowding in jails and prisons. Essentially, he placed convicts’ comfort above victims’ well-being.
Almost all of his actions so far have been more in the interest of criminals than their victims, much the same as Boudin’s, which have not been quite as extreme.
Boudin’s tendencies may be more understandable, as he’s the son of two Weather Underground members given long sentences after convictions for being getaway drivers in a 1981 Brinks car robbery in Rocklin, NY, that led to the deaths of two police officers and a security guard.
But Gascon is a former longtime top cop. A movement to recall him is now underway, but he’s already spurred a totally unprecedented conflict among this state’s leading prosecutors. He’s also setting an example for like-mined leftists, if more of them ever become D.A.s.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net