Ahead of the election for Los Angeles district attorney, I sat down with both candidates to learn more about where they stand on the issues and how they see the role of the DA. In this conversation, I spoke with George Gascón, former San Francisco district attorney and current candidate for the job in LA. Read more about the race here, and read my interview with incumbent LA DA Jackie Lacey here.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Patrisse Cullors: Thank you so much for taking the time, George! Let’s get right into it. My first question to you is: What does a district attorney do? What is their role in advancing justice and equity, and why has this race been called the second most important race in the country next to the presidency?
George Gascón: The question [of] what is the role of the DA, I think, is central not only to this phase, but to the movement to reimagine the criminal justice system, because the DA is a major factor in how the criminal justice system operates. Starting with the very basics, the district attorney is someone that gets to review all the work that the police officers do in terms of arrest, and it’s up to the district attorney and his or her policies to determine whether the cases are going to the prosecuted or not. If they're going to be prosecuted, [the DA decides] whether [the charge is] going to be murder, whether incarceration is going to be something on the table, what level of incarceration even up to and including the death penalty.
Take the LA District Attorney's Office. We know that the death penalty is always on the table and it's exercised quite regularly. [Deciding] whether you treat children as kids or prosecute them as adults—again, this is a major role of the district attorney. Then in the area of police accountability, whether you're going to hold police and other public officials accountable to the law. In LA County, we see a major gap there with over 600 police killings [and] a single prosecution, even including about 12 unarmed men of color that have been killed by police and having even the chief of police asking for prosecution—which is very, very uncharacteristic—and still having the DA refuse.
Then you get into the area of policymaking and working with the state and local legislators. District attorneys are very influential actors in how the laws are shaped that either provide funding relief for people, or increase the size of the criminal justice system. So you have the prosecution, the screening of police work, you have holding police accountable, and you have policymaking.
The prosecutor plays a major role in environmental justice. So you take LA County, which is one of the most polluted counties in the country—we have uncapped fossil fuel wells, we have unlawful dumping of hazardous materials, we've had gas leaks. Often, people don't realize that actually the DA could play a major role in protecting our community in this area. Our current district attorney in LA has not done so. Then you talk about consumer law—holding corporations [and] landlords accountable to ensure that they're playing fairly, that they're treating their customers and the public appropriately is a major role of the district attorney. You've seen the current district attorney not being very present in this conversation of white collar prosecutions, holding corporate leaders accountable.
There're so many other layers to the work, and prosecutors in this country have been the major drivers behind mass incarceration and sustaining the systemic racism that is so deeply embedded into the criminal justice system. So [the office of DA has] an operational influence [through] the bully pulpit, sometimes by just not taking action.
Cullors: The big question from the community here in Los Angeles around the deaths that have happened at the hands of law enforcement is this: If you were to be elected, would you be willing to reopen any of the cases and file charges against officers?
Gascón: Yes. We’ve already taken several steps to do this. As part of my campaign, we have a group of civil rights lawyers who are helping our campaign go about reviewing prior incidents of police use of force where there are major questions as to the legitimacy of that force. What I have publicly committed myself to doing is two things: No. 1 is [that] if there were cases that require additional review on potential evaluation for prosecution, that I would be appointing special prosecutors to those for now. What is a special prosecutor? The special prosecutor will be an attorney who is not associated with the office [of the district attorney].
I will be looking for people with civil rights [experience] and high levels of experience in prosecuting complex cases of murder, and I will be allowing them to take the lead in charging those cases or reviewing those cases. They will have the complete authority of my office, but they will be working independently from me. And why am I doing this? I'm doing this because I recognize that regardless of how hard I try, as the elected district attorney many members of the community are going to feel that there is not enough separation or independence between my office and the police and the work that needs to be done. So No. 1, my commitment is to assign special prosecutors as a temporary solution to the current situation.
No. 2, and what I believe to be the more sustainable long-term solution, is [to] work with other stakeholders in the system to get our legislative members in Sacramento to create enabling legislation that would allow counties to create a separate “office of special prosecutors,” if you will, that will be independent from the district attorney's office, independent from the police or anyone else, [and] that will be tasked with investigating police shootings [to] determine whether the shooting was lawful or not. If they determine that a shooting was unlawful, [the office would then] proceed independently to prosecute the case.
Cullors: So specifically, that's exactly what we need—we need to know how you're going to be showing up, what the specific process will be. I think that response is super helpful for people who've just been trying to figure out how to deal with the harms and violence against their family members and not seeing any kind of accountability. I have another question: For three years now, Jackie Lacey has been avoiding a public meeting with Black Lives Matter. I know that you're not her, but the nature of this position means that you will do things that the community sees as unjust. How do you see yourself being held accountable, and will you commit to always have public meetings with the community when requested? And what does that look like to you?
Gascón: I'm going to start backwards here and say very simply and unequivocally that yes, I am committed to having regular conversation with all stakeholders within the community—including Black Lives Matter—and to having an open door policy. I often hear the current district attorney saying, “Well, I'm not going to talk to you until you stop protesting,” but as an elected official you cannot precondition your meetings with a community.
I quite frankly expect that there will be times when people are going to be protesting outside of my office, and then they’re going to come up the elevator and have a conversation with me. That's the way the system is supposed to work. Now, how am I going to do this—in a very formalized way? If I get elected, my goal is to actually embed in the transition a broad spectrum of representation from the various segments of our community so that the community actually begins to take hold of how the district attorney's office is going to serve the community. [I believe in] the concept of “whole governing,” which means bringing in stakeholders and elected and selected officials all together to ensure that the government is a representation of the community that is served, [and that] all of the procedures that we follow are based on collaboration and mutual conversations. So this really has to start from the foundation of the development of the new administration if I were to be elected.
One of the very first things that I would be doing is working with stakeholders, including members of Black Lives Matter as well as others, because we have to cover the entire political spectrum as well. [We want] to make sure that people have a meaningful place at the table when decisions are being made about policies and procedures. It doesn't mean that every moment everybody's going to agree, obviously. Precisely because I find it very important to have a full spectrum of ideas, by definition that will mean that there will be disagreement. But based on my experience, I know that the ultimate decisions are much better when you have this broad base of opinions that come together and people come to some level of consensus. I believe that it becomes a better informed decision.
Cullors: Thank you. Next question: What are your top three policy priorities or reforms you would implement as soon as you're elected here in the largest county in the United States?
Gascón: Well, there are multiple but since you narrowed it to three, I am going to say the first thing is that we will stop all death penalty prosecutions immediately. All cases on the “death track” will be taken out of that track and will be reevaluated for other options. I will immediately stop prosecuting children as adults. I know that there are many kids that are currently being prosecuted adults and I will immediately start a complete reevaluation of the structure of the office so that we start on deemphasizing that very punitive manner in which the office currently functions, and become a more restorative practice—and that will have a whole cascade of other things that will include, as I mentioned before, starting by creating transitional teams that will have civil rights lawyers looking at police use of force. But I would say that if you want to start at the very top of the peak: ending the death penalty, ending the prosecution of juveniles as adults, [and] immediately taking this top to bottom reevaluation of the practices of the office, reducing incarceration, increasing community safety.
Cullors: You are a former law enforcement officer. Why should voters see you as a better alternative than Lacey?
Gascón: I think that voters should support me instead of Lacey precisely because of my background. History matters. There is a lot of rhetoric that becomes a staple of political campaigning, but the reality is that you should not be allowed to reinvent yourself in the last 30 seconds of the campaign. I ask people to look at my record, whether you're talking about prosecuting death penalty cases, [or] whether you're talking about prosecuting children.
So whether you're talking about reducing incarceration, reform efforts, or reduction in violent crime, compare that to the current Los Angeles DA—on every one of those points, you're going to see complete differences.
I understand that Miss Lacey now is trying to reinvent herself at the last moment, but the reality is that regardless of what she says, violent crime in LA County has gone up by 30% during her administration, [according to] Department of Justice (DOJ) numbers. You will also see, based on DOJ files that violent crime in San Francisco County during my time in office was proportionately reduced. So the first thing you have to say here is that you have two administrations, one saw a 30% increase in violent crime, the other one saw reduction.
The next thing is to look at incarceration level, because most people associate enforcement and incarceration with safety—it is a mistaken assumption, but let's take it there. LA incarcerated at four times the rate of San Francisco. Again, that data is there on open sources.
So you have a county that incarcerates at four times the rate, which tells you that you are not only criminalizing a higher number of people and families and communities, but you have to look at the return on your investment. If you wanted to follow the logic of many law enforcement people, you would anticipate that somehow that created more safety, but it didn't.
Then I want you to look at things like how children are treated. And again, you will see that District Attorney Lacey just recently joined the Ventura district attorney to ask the California Supreme Court to allow a 14-year-old or 15-year-old to be prosecuted as an adult. Compare that and see what we did in San Francisco. When I was a district attorney, not only didn’t we prosecute kids as adults, but we actually went to a full restorative justice model for serious crimes. We took misdemeanors out of the criminal justice system when it came to kids. And actually, our juvenile crime proportionally went down more than LA. You can talk about police accountability and see who was the only district attorney that stood up, working with members of the Assembly, to create a wall to reduce the threshold as to when a police officer can use deadly force. You will see again, Jackie Lacey was on the opposite side of the aisle. I'm only citing a few—I can work on and on and on.
Cullors: Of course.
Gascón: The realities of the differences are great, and they are there for everyone to see. If you want to, stay away from the information from either campaign and just go to the actual sources that have this information in there, [like] the Department of Justice and newspaper articles.
Cullors: There are three different policies that are centered around the budgets of the police and the city, the county, and the national government. A few we are in support of are the Care First budget of Los Angeles County, the People's Budget in the city, and the BREATHE Act, which is a piece of federal legislation that many of us in the Movement for Black Lives worked on and have been pushing for Congress to pass. Do you support these policies?
Gascón: Yes. So starting with the last one, the BREATHE Act, and the answer is yes, I am in support. I'm also supporting Proposition J, which is the county measure that would take 10% away from law enforcement entities within the county and move that money to community-based services. 10% should be the floor, just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that as we continue to develop alternatives to incarceration, alternatives to a law enforcement solution to problems like mental health and dispute resolution in our community and substance abuse and so many other things that we currently use law enforcement as the answer for, the reduction in the law enforcement budget and the shifting of the funding for those other services should be measurable and should be continuing.
I don't believe that we should ever get rid of policing or prosecutors or jails or prisons, but I do believe that the scope of the work for policing, prosecutors, jails, and prisons should be substantially reduced, and when it is used, it should be used in a very different way than we currently use it. So I would round out my answer by saying that I'm a strong supporter of restructuring and reimagining the entire criminal justice system. Just because we've always done it a certain way, doesn't mean that we have to be continuing to do it. I believe in continuous exploration, of this reimagining of how we do the work, and part of that begins with doing what we're doing in LA County by taking proposition J. I call it the down payment on the journey of reimagining our system.
Cullors: Thank you so much, George. Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share?
Gascón: I think one of the areas that was underlying in this entire conversation is that this is a historic election. Both The New York Times and the LA Times have called the race for LA DA the second most important race in the country in 2020, and the reason for that is because LA County has such an outsize influence not only what happens within LA County, but what happens in the rest of the state and the nation. Just to give you one minor piece of information, there are approximately 700 people on death row in California. It's the largest death row in the country. A third of those come from LA County, 50% of that group have documented mental health problems; almost all of them are men of color. And if you were to amortize a single execution in the state of California today, meaning how much it would cost, it would be about $300 million. Just think about how much education, how many mental health services, how much public health we can buy with $300 million.
This race will matter. In big and small ways, elections always matter and I believe in many ways this is a fight for the soul of our country and our community. I hope that even those members of our community who often are not accustomed to voting understand just how important it is. I thank everyone and I really, really appreciate the support.
Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.