DA Gascon is downsizing LA's gang unit, though the specifics are still vague

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Last week LA’s progressive district attorney, George Gascon, announced his latest attempt to demoralize his own prosecutors. Gascon is downsizing the gang unit which goes after some of the most violent crimes in the county and is remaking it with a focus on public health and rehabilitation. The number of prosecutors focused on gangs will be cut by about a third:

The new Community Violence Reduction Division will “integrate the most serious gang crimes and most prolific violent offenders with prevention, intervention and community involvement efforts,” according to a copy of an internal memo reviewed by The Times. The new unit will have 26 prosecutors, as opposed to the 40 who staffed the prior unit, officials said…

In an interview with The Times last week, Gascón said the new unit’s core mission is to approach violence “through a public health lens,” noting that he plans to partner with gang intervention workers and service providers, though he didn’t name specific vendors.

“The goal here is, eventually, not only for the D.A., but also the police, to become sort of a supporting role and have the community and county public health be the leading role,” he said, noting that his office would step in when “there needs to be a prosecution.”…

“The model of Hardcore Gang … you create a model that, first of all, even the name itself, it’s sort of this connotation of us against them. Bad guys, good guys,” he said. “There’s increasingly a disconnect with the communities that we serve.”

I’m not sure what any of that means. The Times points out that the Hardcore Gang unit is focused on people who are responsible for a significant percentage of all of the murders happening in the county.

The number of homicides in Los Angeles rose above 300 for the first time in a decade last year, and the LAPD considers many of those slayings to be gang-related. At least 60 of the 105 homicides that had taken place in Los Angeles as of April 20 were believed to be connected to gang activity, police officials have said.

So the idea that we don’t want to make murderous gang bangers feel like bad guys is a pretty odd take for a DA. If people carrying out street justice and killing over drug territory aren’t bad guys, who is?

The LA Times published two letters in response to the article. One came from a “behavioral health clinician” who said Gascon’s efforts struck her as “visionary.” The other letter was from a retired federal prosecutor who’d worked on gang crimes:

Is criminal justice reform likely to mean that there are fewer serious or violent cases among the county’s criminal defendants? Have you noticed the recent homicide rate here?

Criminal justice reform does not mean fewer cases against hardcore defendants; it means more programs to divert less serious defendants, especially first-time offenders, from conviction or imprisonment in the first place. Such reform primarily requires not fewer prosecutors, but rather more probation officers, more supervised release, more counseling, more gang intervention and more addiction services.

In short, it requires more budgeting for services that are outside the district attorney’s office. Weakening efforts against those who need serious prosecution does not help those who do not, nor does it improve community safety.

This is like the “defund police” argument all over again. Progressive activists say one thing but if you ask most people living in violent neighborhoods what they’d like to see is more cops walking a beat, not fewer.

Obviously both takes on Gascon’s reform efforts can’t be right. Either Gascon is going to usher in a new era of decreased crime with his visonary focus on public health over incarceration or this is going to be a disaster in which a lot of violent criminals get treated with kid gloves and go on to commit more mayhem. It can’t be both.

I think I know which one it’s going to be but the voters elected this guy and he did run on a platform of major reform so they literally asked for this. Now they’re getting it good and hard. And if it turns out to be a disaster, maybe the voters in LA will have learned something about progressive visionaries.