*****Disclaimer: This is not legal advice and is for educational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client privilege.
On December 7, 2020 George Gascon, the newly elected District Attorney of Los Angeles County, introduced 9 new directives that mark a huge change to criminal justice in LA county. He wasted no time, giving his directive on his first day in office. These directives have broad effect, including opening the door for reduced sentencing and changes to bail and other processes related to criminal cases. If you have a loved one who is incarcerated, or have an interest in criminal justice reform, I highly recommend reading on to learn more about these new directives.
These changes have certainly been controversial. The momentum from 2020`s BLM protests played a huge roll in Gascon being successfully elected. The former DA of San Francisco positioned himself as a progressive candidate more aligned with the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, supporting the calls for increased accountability for law enforcement, reducing the prison population overall, and particularly for recognizing the racial demographics of incarcerated people. He ran against Jackie Lacey, who garnered millions of dollars in support from police groups and supporters nationwide.
Though Gascon`s win reflects the will of the people and their desire for a more progressive and fair criminal justice system, his directives have received a lot of criticism from those who oppose these ends or are proponents for a hardline approach to crime and for less accountability measures for police. I, for one, think these changes are amazing and long overdue.
So what exactly do these directives include? The first directive is to move away from cash bail to releasing individuals prior to their trials, except in cases where there is clear and convincing evidence that points to a high probability of their release resulting in harm to others, or if they are a demonstrable flight risk. The directive provides a list of certain misdemeanor offenses that warrant immediate, pretrial release without arraignment (assuming no extenuating circumstances warrant them being held). This list includes; driving without a license, disturbing the peace, trespassing, loitering, public intoxication, substance possession, prostitution and criminal threats.
Gascon remarked on how cash-bail results in a two-tier system in which the haves and have-nots face very different consequences. Does being able to afford bail make you more deserving of freedom and consideration? Does not being able to afford the payment mean you deserve a harsher punishment or prove a greater risk to the community? Of course not. Thus this directive is common sense and much needed.
Another directive called for all sentencing enhancements to be stricken. The original directive on the 7th called for an end to all enhancements, but due concern over certain enhancements, this directive was amended on the 18th of December such that sentencing enhancements will still be sought in crimes against children and the elderly, hate crimes, and in certain other cases.
The STEP Act enhancements will not be used in sentencing, special circumstances allegations resulting in a (life without parole) sentence shall not be filed, will not be used for sentencing and shall be dismissed or withdrawn from the charging document; and bail or parole violations shall not be filed a separate offense.
Another directive created the Habeas Corpus Litigation Team, or HABLIT. This team`s primary mission will be to focus on post-conviction litigation work. The team`s purpose will be to “undertake a good-faith post-conviction review designed to ensure the integrity of the challenged conviction. Where a post-conviction claim appears potentially meritorious on its face, HABLIT shall immediately commence investigating the claim, and seek the earliest possible resolution where it is determined that the claim is meritorious.”
The next directive regards incarcerated individuals facing a death sentence. The DA`s office will no longer defend existing death sentences nor seek an execution date for any individuals that have been sentenced to one. The DA`s office will also review every death penalty judgments originating from LA, with the goal of removing this sentence.
Another directive also calls for the DA office to conduct reviews on any cases involving individuals who have served 15 or more years already. These cases will be reevaluated and considered for resentencing, with the aim of sentence reduction.
The directives also include an update to the Conviction Integrity Unit such that they are better equipped to “conduct strategically collaborative, good-faith case reviews designed to ensure the integrity of challenged convictions, remedy wrongful convictions, and take any remedial measures necessary to correct injustices uncovered, within the bounds of the law,” according to DA Gascon.
The Bureau of Victim Services has also now been mandated to contact all victims of violent crimes within 24 hours from the incident. Support will be provided to both survivors/victims of, and minors witnessing, violent crimes including homicide, attempted homicide, sexual assault and domestic/intimate partner violence.
Finally, the directive also included that the DA`s office will not prosecute misdemeanor charges brought against minors. Instead a more rehabilitative, versus punitive, approach will be taken that involves referring these minors to community based diversion programs or to pre-filing, where appropriate.
These changes are sweeping and such important wins for proponents of criminal justice reform.