On his first day in office in 2020, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón doubled down on his reputation as “the godfather of progressive prosecutors,” radically changing the way the nation’s largest district attorney’s office conducts business.
Prosecutors could no longer seek the death penalty or try juveniles as adults. A number of misdemeanor charges, including trespassing and simple drug possession, would no longer be filed. An overall focus on restorative justice would mean defendants would face shorter prison sentences, even in some cases where violence was alleged.
In his inauguration speech, Gascón asked police and prosecutors to join him on a “new path” for law enforcement. But a swath of L.A. County law enforcement leaders and elected officials have rejected that call. Dozens of city councils have cast no-confidence votes against Gascón. So did the union that represents his own prosecutors.
After a tumultuous term that featured two failed recall attempts, Gascón is seeking another four years in office. The large primary field contains a mix of traditional law-and-order prosecutors and those who think they can offer a more moderate approach to criminal justice reform. Nearly all of the challengers are united in their belief that Gascón is grossly unfit for office.
While political observers think Gascón is vulnerable, they also believe he is likely to survive the primary stage on the support of L.A.’s growing progressive electorate and the advantage of being the incumbent.
That leaves 11 other candidates to vie for a chance to knock him out in November’s general election.
Who are the candidates?
Here are the contenders, in order of their entry into the race:
- Maria Ramirez — L.A. County deputy district attorney
- John McKinney — L.A. County deputy district attorney
- Jonathan Hatami — L.A. County deputy district attorney
- Nathan Hochman — Former federal prosecutor
- Eric Siddall — L.A. County deputy district attorney
- Craig Mitchell — L.A. County Superior Court judge
- Jeff Chemerinsky — Former federal prosecutor
- Debra Archuleta — L.A. County Superior Court judge
- David Milton — Retired L.A. County Superior Court judge
- Dan Kapelovitz — Defense attorney
- Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson — San Bernardino County deputy district attorney
Why is Gascón so controversial?
Critics blame Gascón for a rise in crime across L.A. County and say his efforts aimed at reducing mass incarceration are overly broad, such as limiting the use of sentencing enhancements that can add decades to a defendant’s prison sentence.
His rigid policies have led to a number of controversies, including letting a 26-year-old transgender woman be tried in juvenile court for sexually assaulting a child because she wasn’t linked to the crime until nearly a decade after it occurred. Critics within Gascón’s office say they’ve been punished and demoted for pushing back on his policies, leading to a slew of lawsuits, including one he lost that will cost the county $1.5 million. In early 2021, an L.A. County Superior Court judge ruled that some of his initial policies violated California law.
Criminologists, however, say any link between Gascón’s reform efforts and crime rates is speculative and statistics also raise questions about that narrative.
Data obtained through a public records request show the number of felony cases filed by prosecutors during Gascón’s first term is only slightly lower than it was under his predecessor — 51% from 2021 to 2023 under Gascón compared to 54% in the final two years of Jackie Lacey’s administration. Violent crime is up about 8% in the city and county from 2019 to 2022, but rates have surged by four times that in Orange and Sacramento counties, home to more traditional prosecutors.
A judge has granted large portions of a petition filed by the union representing prosecutors that will bar Gascón from enacting some of his reforms.
Misdemeanor filing rates, however, have fallen by nearly half under Gascón in the same time frame, corresponding with a near 9% countywide jump in property crimes.
Gascón’s first term has also been a success for the progressive bloc that vaulted him into office.
Prosecutions of police officers for excessive force have become more of a focus, and seven people have been exonerated for crimes judges later ruled they did not commit. Gascón’s resentencing unit has also had a dramatic impact by shortening the prison terms of people who were sent away for decades as juveniles because they were tried as adults, though some say the program is moving too slowly.
What would the challengers change if elected?
Virtually every challenger has said they will reverse the sweeping policy changes Gascón enacted on his first day in office, but the planned implementation varies on such a walk back.
Hochman, Hatami, Milton and McKinney have said they would either erase all of the district attorney’s policies or begin their terms as the “exact opposite of George Gascón.” Hochman has accused Gascón of ushering in “the golden age of criminals,” and Milton claimed the district attorney is part of a broader national attempt to “destroy our constitutional democratic republic.”
Hochman has also promised to reinstitute the use of the death penalty and order prosecutors to once again attend parole hearings for inmates they previously convicted, a practice Gascón had stopped.
Milton and Archuleta have said they would direct prosecutors to file all sentencing enhancements that can be proved, another position shared by Hochman.
Milton is the only candidate running as a Republican. Though Hochman rebranded himself for the primary as having no party preference, he ran as a Republican when he challenged Rob Bonta in the 2022 state attorney general’s race, in which he was soundly defeated.
Others have taken a more nuanced approach: Ramirez said she’d rein in Gascón’s policies but not eradicate them, instead “empowering” prosecutors to apply them on a case-by-case basis. Siddall has taken a similarly moderate path, promising to run a “progressive office that functions” with leeway on the use of sentencing enhancements. Both also said they’d focus on recruiting new prosecutors to an office that is bleeding staff.
With the number of prosecutors, public defenders, court reporters and interpreters all falling since the peak of the pandemic, concerns about equal access to justice and the L.A. County Superior Court’s ability to provide some basic functions are looming large.
Mitchell, a longtime judge, says he believes in “restorative justice.” But he has also blasted Gascón for enacting policies that he claims benefit criminals. He has said he would file all enhancements that are legally permissible, and has rejected criticism of mass incarceration, noting that due to his work with drug users in Skid Row, he believes the “timeout” provided by prison has helped change some people’s lives.
Chemerinsky — whose father, Erwin, helped craft some of Gascón’s policies — has been the only person besides Gascón to spend extended time on debate stages talking about criminal justice reform. While echoing the district attorney’s concerns about mass incarceration, he also said the office needs to focus more on prosecuting defendants who commit gun crimes and acts of violence.
Kapelovitz and Masson did not enter the race until the December 2023 deadline to file for the primary, and did not appear in early debates.
A journalist turned defense attorney, Kapelovitz seems to be the only candidate tacking to Gascón’s left. He said he will further fight to reduce mass incarceration, and has called for even tighter limits on when cases can be filed and when bail can be sought. In an email to The Times, Kapelovitz said he would also bar prosecutors from seeking bail against defendants accused of nonviolent crimes and work to recruit “justice-oriented attorneys who believe in justice reform” to fill vacancies in the office.
Masson, a cold-case prosecutor in the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, said he would immediately drop “the hammer on all robbery, burglary and theft-related offenses, including follow-home robberies, car thefts, retail theft and catalytic converter thefts.” He also called for an end to “blanket zero-bail policies,” though L.A. County’s current bail schedule is set by the Superior Court system, not the district attorney’s office.
For a more detailed look at most of the sprawling field,click here.
A number of powerful unions, elected officials and veteran law enforcement leaders have already lent their support to candidates.
Gascón has won the support of the powerful L.A. County Federation of Labor and retained the endorsement of the county Democratic Party, which he had in 2020. A number of high-profile local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach) and L.A. County Supervisor Lindsay Horvath, have also backed his reelection bid.
Gascón also won the endorsement of The Times editorial board and received a joint vote of support with Ramirez from the Mexican-American Bar Assn. of Los Angeles County.
The L.A. County Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors under Gascón, has endorsed its immediate past vice president, Siddall.
Hochman is backed by former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and a number of former federal prosecutors, including Nicola Hanna, who until 2021 served as U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles.
Chemerinsky announced his bid for office with the support of L.A. City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto and also has the backing of City Councilman Bob Blumenfield.
Elected district attorneys in Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties have all endorsed Hatami.
A number of smaller police unions have also offered endorsements. Cops in Glendale, Arcadia and Beverly Hills have gone to Hatami, while police unions in Whittier, Santa Monica and West Covina have endorsed McKinney.
The incumbent district attorney will have to overcome low approval ratings and concerns about crime. But with a field of 11 challengers, it has been hard for any of them to stand out.
One term after sweeping into office on a reform agenda, George Gascón will have to fend off a mix of former federal prosecutors, county judges and deputy district attorneys in order to win re-election.
The field of challengers to L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón in 2024 expanded to include, Eric Siddall, vice president of the D.A.’s union, and veteran Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell.
As they try to recall Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, prosecutors still must carry out the enormous workload of the office. With distrust running high, even mundane tasks get more complicated.
L.A. Times Editorial Board Endorsements
The Times’ editorial board operates independently of the newsroom — reporters covering these races have no say in the endorsements.
How and where to vote
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