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Judge Blocks LA District Attorney’s Reforms

Photo caption:

Photo by Bryan Chan / AP

In this undated file photo provided by the County of Los Angeles, incoming Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón speaks after he was sworn in a virtual ceremony in downtown Los Angeles.

A judge has barred Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón from implementing a significant piece of his criminal justice reforms, ruling the progressive's policy to end sentencing enhancements in criminal cases is unlawful.

Monday's ruling comes after the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles sued their boss over the changes. The union challenged Gascón's directives, which he issued after taking office in December. The deputy attorneys argued that Gascón's orders posed serious ethical issues for deputy district attorneys.

"The court ruled that the District Attorney's policy violated the law to benefit criminal defendants and ordered him to comply with the law," the union said in a statement. "This ruling protects the communities which are disproportionately affected by higher crime rates and those who are victimized."

The lawsuit contested Gascón's policy of barring the use of sentencing enhancements. The union argued under California's three-strikes law, prosecutors don't have discretion "to refuse to seek the enhancement."

Sentencing enhancements mandate that those convicted of serious crimes, and have a prior conviction, receive longer sentences than those who are convicted of the same crime, but have no criminal record. Prosecutors in LA would commonly seek longer prison terms for criminal defendants with past felony convictions, or for being suspected of being a gang member.

Judge James Chalfant agreed with the union's argument that Gascón's rules broke California's three-strikes law, which states, "[t]he prosecuting attorney shall plead and prove each prior serious or violent felony conviction" of a criminal defendant.

Chalfant said the three-strikes law must "be applied in every case in which the defendant has a prior serious or violent conviction, and that the prosecuting attorney 'shall plead and prove' the strike prior" except in cases where the prior offense can't be proved.

Gascón to appeal

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles said in its statement, "As the court ruling makes clear, this decision was based on what the law is and not what an officeholder thinks it should be."

Chalfant's preliminary injunction will not stop Gascón from preventing his deputies from seeking sentencing enhancements in new cases where not required by the three-strikes law.

Gascón pitched himself to voters as a force that will bring sweeping changes to California's most populous county's criminal justice system.

Shortly after being sworn in to his post, Gascón announced several reforms, in addition to his changes to the three-strikes policy. Those included a call for ending the death penalty, and stopping most uses of cash bail for misdemeanor or nonviolent felony offenses.

Gascón said in a statement Monday: "My directives are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety."

He said he will appeal Chalfant's ruling, but that he would adopt the judge's order in the interim.

"Until the appeal is decided, my office will adjust its policies to be consistent with this ruling," he said. "We can no longer afford – morally, socially or economically – to justify tough-on-crime policies in the name of victims when a majority of the survivor community supports rehabilitation over excessive sentences. The long-term health and safety of our community depend on it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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