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August 17, 2023

Highlighting how even the "godfather of progressive prosecutors" has struggled to advance re-sentencing plans

The Los Angeles Times has this notable new article, headlined "Frustration and criticism as L.A.’s D.A. struggles to reform sentencing," which highlights how even progressive prosecutors face various challenging is advancing progressive resentencing plans.  Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:

On his first day in office in 2020, Gascón unveiled a list of seismic policy shifts including the creation of a re-sentencing unit that he said could reduce the terms of up to 30,000 people sent to California prisons by L.A. prosecutors under what he called outdated sentencing models. But as of mid-July, only 95 people have actually been recommended for re-sentencing by the unit he formed, according to data provided to The Times in response to a public records request....

While critics say Gascón’s attempts to provide post-conviction relief are still a major improvement over the prior administration, the slow pace has drawn a mix of frustration and criticism from defense attorneys and reform advocates who expected more from the so-called “godfather of progressive prosecutors.”

Some have expressed concern that constant discord in the office, including two failed recall attempts, has made staff hesitant to take action. “They’re worried about having their names on briefs when someone is released,” Michael Romano, chair of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s committee on revising the penal code and a former adviser to Gascón, said of some prosecutors in Gascón’s re-sentencing unit. “They’re very concerned about recidivism.”

Despite Gascón’s comments about thousands of people needing to be re-sentenced, the unit is still working off an initial list of 400 cases it was asked to review. Of those cases, prosecutors have only sought re-sentencing in 162, according to the records provided to The Times. The unit declined to pursue an additional 122 cases, and roughly 100 are still awaiting a decision by the re-sentencing unit or a judge....

Tiffiny Blacknell, a spokesperson for Gascón’s office, defended the re-sentencing initiative and said the number of people who’ve benefited is “greatly multiplied” if expanded to include the work of other units in the office. She pointed to cases where defendants were released for medical reasons, death penalty cases that were reduced to life without parole, and others impacted by the office’s use of California’s prosecutor-initiated re-sentencing law, which took effect in 2019.

Blacknell said the office helped re-sentence 207 defendants under that law — a figure they say far outpaced other large counties in California — but did not provide exact figures for other forms of re-sentencing. Blacknell also said “it took a number of months” to get the unit up and running during Gascón’s tumultuous transition to power in the office, a period marked by lawsuits and public rancor from many of his own prosecutors.

Another factor is the broader staffing crunch in the L.A. County court system. The district attorney’s office had only 808 prosecutors as of mid-June, its smallest roster in decades. The re-sentencing unit has only three full-time deputy district attorneys at the moment, according to Blacknell.

While reform advocates and attorneys have lauded Gascón’s intent, they say his understaffed and slow-moving unit has failed to aid anywhere near the number of defendants that it could... In practice, lawyers who handle post-conviction cases say Gascón is only going after “low-hanging fruit” by focusing on nonviolent offenders, leaving others in need of relief out in the cold. Defense attorney Andy Stein remembers getting dozens of phone calls around the time of Gascón’s swearing in from people facing the kinds of lengthy sentences that the district attorney’s policies were meant to help. But he said he’s only been able to aid a few.

“I think the public has a total misconception of what’s going on,” Stein said. “He’s not letting tons of people out, he’s letting hardly anybody out … the road to hell is paved with good intentions. He’s under-equipped, under-funded.”

August 17, 2023 at 03:13 PM | Permalink


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