By Nick Watt, CNN
A rash of package thefts from freight trains passing slowly through downtown Los Angeles has raised a fundamental question facing this city and others: how to balance attempts at criminal justice reform with the need for crime prevention.
“What the hell is going on?” asked an exasperated Gov. Gavin Newsom last week when he joined an effort to clear the cargo detritus from the train tracks.
Railroad behemoth Union Pacific, in large part, blames the thefts on Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a progressive who took office 13 months ago on promises to enact a “more humane” criminal justice system. The company has claimed that despite over 100 arrests, “UP has not been contacted for any court proceedings.”
Gascón, however, calls that “misleading,” telling CNN, “They did not send 100 cases to us.”
Union Pacific points to a controversial order issued in December 2020 by the DA to his staff not to prosecute many misdemeanors including most cases of trespassing. A company executive about a month ago wrote to Gascón, “UP and our goods movement partners strongly urge you to reconsider the policies detailed in Special Directive 20-07.”
But Gascón isn’t backing down from the mandate — or from other initiatives that have drawn fierce opposition from within his own ranks, as well as from the community he serves, where organizers are now driving a second attempt to throw him out of office.
Flanked recently by other progressive district attorneys from around the country as he marked his first year in office, Gascón doubled down: “We have set a path for ourselves to turn around the criminal legal system in this country,” he said.
Diverting nonviolent suspects to treatment
Gascón is a suave, 67-year-old lawyer who started his career as a beat cop with the Los Angeles Police Department. He went on to serve as San Francisco’s police chief and then that city’s district attorney. Amid public outrage over George Floyd’s murder in 2020 in Minneapolis police custody, Gascón was elected Los Angeles County DA late that year on a platform of police accountability and systemic reform.
He is now the top prosecutor of America’s most populous county, home to more than 10 million people.
Gascón got to work on Day 1 in office. In a series of directives he ordered his deputy district attorneys never to seek the death penalty or charge anyone younger than 18 as an adult. He told his prosecutors to stop seeking longer sentences in most crimes if guns or gangs were involved. He also has, in most cases, eliminated cash bail and ordered a review of many long sentences handed down in years past.
He claims his reforms will make the criminal justice system, “more humane, more equitable and above all will create a safer environment for all of us.” Gascón hopes to shrink the county’s prison population and reduce recidivism rates, he has said. His focus is more on rehabilitation, less on punishment.
“Over the course of my decades in policing, I’ve witnessed over and over again the multigenerational impact of arrests and prosecutions in poor African American and Latino communities,” Gascón said at his inauguration in December 2020.
Gascón’s directives also included a measure that would become the crux of Union Pacific’s particular beef: He ordered his deputies not to prosecute many nonviolent misdemeanors, like trespassing, if a suspect suffers with mental illness or substance abuse or does not pose a “verifiable, imminent safety risk.”
“When we see evidence of mental health and substance abuse and it doesn’t involve violence,” Gascon said, “we are diverting people” for rehabilitation and treatment.
The new slate of reforms met swift pushback from the union that represents LA’s deputy district attorneys, which quickly sued the new boss, Gascón. “Yes, it’s rare,” Eric Siddall, vice president of the union and a deputy DA, told CNN. “These social experiments are not grounded in reality.” In court filings, the union claims Gascón’s policies are “not merely radical, but plainly unlawful.”
Many crimes, like burglary and arson, actually have fallen modestly since Gascón took office, according to statistics from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office. The drops could owe to the disruptions caused by Covid-19. Meantime, homicide rates in Los Angeles County climbed nearly 48% from January through November 2020 to the same period in 2021. Indeed, murder rates have risen in many parts of the country since the pandemic began, according to CNN analysis.
Still, Gascón is taking heat for a number of recent high-profile murders on his patch. Among the victims is Jacqueline Avant, a much-loved philanthropist and wife of a renowned music executive, who was shot dead in her Beverly Hills home.
The suspect was “in and out of institutions most of his life,” Gascón told CNN. He blames Avant’s and other murders primarily on a lack of rehabilitation efforts in the past. “We are paying the price of 30 years of really bad public safety policy,” he said. The suspect has been charged with murder.
Gascón is also now taking some heat for a spate of smash-and-grab robberies in Los Angeles and beyond before Christmas. “He has created this environment where there’s no accountability,” Siddall said. “Criminals are arrested, and within 24 hours they’re back on the street committing crime.”
A number of arrests were made after those raids. “None of those cases came to us,” Gascón said. Not yet. “Everybody was cited to late March of 2022,” he explained.
“Whether it’s fair or not to point the finger at (Gascón), the finger is being pointed,” said Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “I don’t think we have the statistics to show how these new directives are really impacting what’s happening on the streets of LA.”
‘There is always going to be a hard pushback’
One of those pointing a finger is the LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who calls Gascón’s tenure so far, “God awful,” and, “an absolute disaster for the community.”
Gascón claims such salvos are purely political. “He’s running for reelection. He’s got very strong opponents,” Gascón said of the sheriff. “I think it’s important for the public to understand that his fight is not just with me. He’s got a fight with every elected official other than Donald Trump.”
But Gascón is now facing a second recall effort, which Villanueva supports. It aims to raise $5 million and collect 800,000 signatures to get a recall measure on the November ballot.
Gascón was asked at the news conference with the other progressive DAs about his spat with Villanueva. His answer: “My dad used to say that when you wrestle with a pig, you both get muddy and the pig likes it.” Gascón clarified he wasn’t using “pig” as a derogatory term for a lawman but to describe someone who lacks “decorum.”
“For those of us who just want the system to work,” Levenson said, “It is distracting to have this constant tit-for-tat.”
Gascón is now pushing back against Union Pacific. He disputes its claim that he is to blame because no prosecutions have resulted from over 100 arrests tied to those package thefts from trains. “None of those cases came to us,” Gascón told CNN. “We cannot prosecute an empty chair.” He wonders if Union Pacific perhaps sent cases to other jurisdictions.
Gascón replied to the letter in which Union Pacific pleaded with him to reconsider his reforms. “UP does little to secure or lock trains,” Gascón wrote. “And has significantly reduced law enforcement staffing.” Both sides are now calling for greater collaboration.
Meantime, Gascón’s reforms roll on. “When you’re taking on systems that are deeply embedded,” he said, “there is always going to be a hard pushback.”
Reforming Los Angeles’ criminal justice system could take a decade or more, Gascón told CNN. “If at some point the voters decide this is not the direction they wanna go and they wanna go in a different direction,” said the prosecutor whose term ends in late 2024. “That’s what a democracy is all about.”
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CNN’s Stephanie Becker contributed to this story.