The identity crisis that has divided the California Democratic party for the last few years is now playing out in full force in the court system of the state’s largest county.
This is one meaning of the controversy that followed December’s order by George Gascon, the newly elected Los Angeles County district attorney, that all 1,000 or so of his courtroom deputies immediately stop enforcing the state’s “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” and cease adding potential sentence enhancements to any charges they file against criminal suspects.
“In essence,” said one judge, “Gascon is saying there are no ‘career criminals’ that society has an interest in keeping off the streets as long as possible. To state that proposition is to affirm its absurdity.”
Mr. Gascon argues that penalties for actual crimes being charged are significant on their own and that sentencing enhancements like those for hate crimes and third strikes lead to excessive prison terms disproportionately affecting blacks and Latinos. He contends they do not deter many crimes, but do wreck lives and cause societal damage.
“People that commit a crime … They are going to face accountability,” he told a reporter. “That accountability will be proportionate to the crime.”
In effect, he was endorsing the Biblical principle of “an eye for an eye,” rather than make penalties for any single crime greater than their actual effect on victims.
The conflict is a dramatic reflection of the divide within the state’s Democratic party between moderates and ultra liberals calling themselves progressives. During last year’s presidential primary, this divide saw the ultra-liberal Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vermont, take 35% of California’s Democratic vote while other, more moderate candidates like President-elect Joe Biden and his transportation secretary-designate Pete Buttegieg got 65%.
That was akin to the margin by which U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a moderate, won her 2018 Democratic Party primary against the self-described progressive Kevin de Leon, now a Los Angeles city councilman.
Mr. Gascon, a former deputy Los Angeles police chief who later was San Francisco’s district attorney — and left the city in a crime crisis when he was finished, according to critics — may be the ultimate California carpetbagger, moving from south to north and back south whenever it could boost his career.
His edicts immediately after taking office went far beyond “reforms” he promised while campaigning. No one knows if he could have been elected had voters known what was coming.
Supporters justify his moves by saying they are extensions of voter-approved initiatives that shifted some felonies to less-penalized misdemeanors and lowered prison populations.
But among Mr. Gascon’s actions is an attempt at virtual elimination of cash bail in Los Angeles County. That’s counter to the resounding vote last fall on Proposition 25, which threw out a recently-passed state law banning cash bail. So Mr. Gascon is not simply carrying out voter wishes.
Mr. Gascon also threatens to have prosecutors freeze out judges who don’t go along with his edicts by not filing felony cases in their courtrooms, even though state law and state Supreme Court decisions give judges the power to add sentence enhancements to criminal charges where they believe it’s justified. Enhancements can add years to a prison sentence.
This, Mr. Gascon’s office argued in one directive, can “(waste) critical financial state and local resources.”
Ultimately, it will be local voters who decide via a proposed recall election whether Mr. Gascon is carrying out the public will.
And the deputy district attorneys’ union has sued Mr. Gascon, saying he is trying to force his deputies to choose between “following the law, their oath … or following … orders.”
This all makes sense in the context of the struggle for the soul of California Democrats. Activists on the left often pack local caucuses and elect mainly “progressive” delegates to state party conventions where endorsements are decided.
This was why, for one example, Sen. Feinstein ran three years ago without her party’s backing, but won handily anyhow when the mass of the state’s Democrats decided things.
It’s a quarrel that won’t end soon, but ultra liberals like Mr. Gascon should beware that if they swing their party too far left, they will endanger the Democrats’ current domination of state politics and all its major offices.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more of Mr. Elias’ columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.