The Prosecutors’ Union That’s Suing George Gascón Has A History Of Zealous Opposition To Reform
A look at the organization’s past actions suggests that this lawsuit is part of a longstanding pattern of ideologically motivated advocacy and commitment to tough-on-crime policies, rather than a show of blind allegiance to the law.
On Dec. 30, the union representing Los Angeles County’s deputy district attorneys sued their new boss, DA George Gascón, who ran on a platform of criminal justice reforms. It claimed his order to forgo sentencing enhancements violates California law.
The Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County (ADDA) framed its opposition to Gascón’s order as an ethical imperative to “neutrally and impartially enforce and apply” existing law. In California, that includes the STEP Act and the Three Strikes law, which allow the state to pursue harsher sentences if the defendant is accused of gang affiliation, or has been convicted of prior serious or violent crimes.
Gascón’s office contends that moving away from these laws is a moral issue, and that their enforcement has until now been anything but neutral—the directive notes that 45 percent of people currently serving a life sentence in California are Black. Prosecutors have discretion on how to handle individual cases, the directive argues, and studies have exposed wide racial disparities in their charging and sentencing decisions.
And a look at the ADDA’s history suggests that this lawsuit is part of a longstanding pattern of ideologically motivated advocacy and commitment to tough-on-crime policies, rather than a show of blind allegiance to the law.
Over the past several years, the union has made clear its position on reforms to the criminal legal system—and, by extension, the organizations and leaders who promote them. It has promulgated its views in writing, funded and lobbied hard for the propositions and candidates it supports, and expressed vocal opposition to the ones it doesn’t. Throughout, it has remained committed to the notions that criminal justice reform endangers communities, the death penalty is a useful tool, and harsher sentences are synonymous with justice.
The ADDA is led by Michele Hanisee, a deputy district attorney who frequently represents the union in the news media, is listed as treasurer on campaign contribution filings, and appears to be a member of every committee listed on its website.
Hanisee has taken to the ADDA’s website to champion a proposition that would expedite the death penalty, argue that a bill meant to cut down on racial bias in jury selection will prevent “sleeping, hostile, and unintelligible jurors” from being struck, and suggest that criminally minded people flock to California because of its lenient parole laws. In a 2019 New York Times article on the death penalty, she shot back against criticism that death sentences are racially biased. “Of the 24 or so who are presently eligible for execution [in California], half of them are white men,” Hanisee told the Times. “So let’s execute them.”
With this lawsuit, Hanisee is taking a more restrained rhetorical approach, striving to present her organization as a neutral vessel for the law. “This is a classic separation of powers issue,” she said on KFI-AM’s “Gary and Shannon” show. “The legislature gets to enact laws, or the voters … the judicial branch is authorized to rule on the legality of laws, and the executive—elected officials—aren’t authorized to do either.”
University of Southern California professor Jody Armour, an author and commentator on prison and policing matters who endorsed Gascón during the 2020 election, is skeptical of this reasoning. “Discretion is the stock-in-trade of any prosecutor’s office,” Armour said. “DAs tell their offices, ‘We’re going after these kinds of crimes, not those kinds of crimes,’ all the time.”
The practices of the Los Angeles DA office in the last 30 years has provided plenty of evidence of this prosecutorial discretion—though it has often been used to zealously enforce criminal justice laws rather than temper them. Ira Reiner, the DA from 1984 to 1992 and a liberal Democrat, was described as a “maverick DA” by the Los Angeles Times for using the weight of his office to lobby for a panoply of harsher criminal laws. Gil Garcetti, a Democrat who served as DA from 1992 until 2000, was criticized by the Republican prosecutor he ultimately lost to, Steve Cooley, for his inflexible interpretation of the Three Strikes law. Gascón won the race against incumbent DA Jackie Lacey after campaigning on bringing criminal justice reforms to Los Angeles. During his campaign, Gascón told The Appeal that sentences over 20 years are “pretty worthless in terms of public safety,” with “very few exceptions,” and should be rare.
Armour told The Appeal: “It is absurd, really, to say that an incoming DA, with a voter mandate to take a different approach to blame and punishment matters, cannot order the enforcement priorities of his office in such a way as to reflect the will of the voters.”
“In this particular case,” he added, “[voters] put someone who ran on a progressive prosecutor’s platform, who made it abundantly clear who he was and how different he was from the law and order DA who had been in the office for eight years. The voters had a clear choice.”
In response to a request for comment, the ADDA said it is “not going to respond to every outlandish claim or statement made in this case,” and referred The Appeal to a statement on its website. Hanisee did not respond to requests for comment.
At stake in this lawsuit are a set of laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s that extended sentences and contributed to California’s skyrocketing prison population. ADDA Vice President Eric Siddall has said that Gascón’s desire to stop seeking gang enhancements and stop applying the Three Strikes law is “prosecutorial institutionalism” influenced by “certain fringe groups.” But advocates and scholars across California and the country have pointed to these laws as racially biased, overly punitive, and ultimately ineffective in stopping crime.
Michael Saavedra and James Nelson, organizers with Dignity and Power Now, have experienced the effect of these laws firsthand. Nelson remembers back in the early 1980s when police began labeling people in his neighborhood as gang members on Field Interview index cards. When the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act passed in 1988, those cards were used to give people longer prison sentences—even though the information was often wrong. “Once [you] get arrested, it’s so easy to attach a gang enhancement to any crime,” Saavedra said, “and it’s very limited in terms of due process in challenging it.”
By 1988, Nelson was already in prison, locked away at 19 for a gang-related murder in which he has always maintained his innocence. He still remembers how things changed: “People were getting more time for enhancements than the crime they were being charged for.” In 1994 came the Three Strikes law, which mandated a sentence of 25 years to life for third-time offenders. “You started seeing folks come in for stealing a pair of socks or stealing food,” Nelson recalled. “You had people sitting in there with life sentences for things that shouldn’t have been life sentences.”
In 1999, at the age of 17, Saavedra had 10 years added on to his sentence because of a gang enhancement. The label meant that he spent 15 of his 19 years in prison in solitary confinement. “I did not have access to any type of educational resources or tools, any type of rehabilitative programs,” Saavedra told The Appeal. “It had a huge effect not only on my stay inside but my transition coming home.”
Today, Nelson and Saavedra facilitate peace work in their communities and advocate for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in California. After teaching himself law in prison, Saavedra is studying to be a lawyer. He knows the gang enhancement he got at 17 is going to follow him right up to his application to the state bar.
Hanisee’s separation of powers argument has not stopped the ADDA from speaking out against laws that the group finds ill-conceived, even after they have gone through the legislature or have been voted for by a majority of Californians. (The California District Attorneys Association, consisting of elected and appointed prosecutors from across the state, has taken similar positions with respect to reform efforts.)
Proposition 47, which was co-written by Gascón and passed with 59 percent of the vote in 2014, reduced many nonviolent felony convictions to misdemeanors. On the ADDA’s website, Hanisee wrote that Prop 47 had wrought “a vast landscape of devastation.” Last year, the union was active in the fight to pass Prop 20, which would have rolled back aspects of Prop 47, Prop 57, and Assembly Bill 109 . (Prop 57 was a 2016 ballot measure that expanded parole eligibility, and AB 109 was legislation passed in 2011 that intended to reduce the state prison population.) Prop 20 was ultimately defeated by nearly 24 percentage points statewide. In Los Angeles County, the margin was even wider.
Much of the ADDA’s rhetoric around Props 47, 57, and 20 relied on the figure of the crime victim, who has, in their telling, been abandoned by soft-on-crime politicians. That framing doesn’t sit right with Tinisch Hollins, the state director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. CSSJ’s sister organization, Californians for Safety and Justice, was instrumental in the passage of 47 and 57, and also worked to defeat Prop 20.
Proponents of Prop 20, Hollins told The Appeal, “egregiously exploited the voices and experiences of crime victims. … This conversation around criminal justice and public safety is always pitting victims against folks who have had contact with the system.”
For Hollins, those tactics are especially hard to countenance because she is a crime survivor herself. “I lost two brothers to gun violence,” she told The Appeal. “It’s sometimes a challenging space to navigate as a survivor whose family has been victimized, who lost someone, and who wants justice and accountability.” Many victim advocacy groups promote tough-on-crime policies; a number have vocally opposed Gascón’s new sentencing directive. In response, Gascón announced that he will continue to seek enhancements for hate crimes, sexual assault, child and elder abuse, sex trafficking, and certain financial crimes, but this has not proved an acceptable compromise for many.
“All survivors have the right to decide for themselves what justice feels like for what happened to them or to their family members,” Hollins told The Appeal. “I will never take that from them. But we have to acknowledge that the current criminal justice system doesn’t really give the majority of us justice. Most crime victims can’t get the response, or even access to the system, to give them the justice and closure that they really want or need or deserve.”
Hollins said that her group’s research on Prop 20 found that it would not have meaningfully changed investment in victim services, which she described as “less than 1 percent” of the state’s $50 billion annual budget for law enforcement, incarceration, and the criminal legal system. Meanwhile, Hollins says, savings from Prop 47 have funded trauma-informed victim services and prevention and treatment programs across the state.
Gascón’s November win against incumbent Lacey was fueled by intense organizing by Black Lives Matter LA and other racial justice organizations, and likely boosted by the uprising for Black lives last summer. Law enforcement unions across Los Angeles County strongly opposed his campaign—and the ADDA was no exception.
The ADDA’s PAC donated $70,000 to a pro-Lacey PAC. (It also joined in the fight against Measure J, with Hanisee acting as a spokesperson for the “No on J” campaign.) In the months and then weeks leading up to the election, the ADDA’s Facebook page was a cacophony of anti-Gascón press. It shared article after article critical of Gascón and other “Soros-backed” candidates, including pieces by Ben Shapiro’s media site The Daily Wire and the Falun Gong-backed Epoch Times.
Mark Debbaudt, Hanisee’s predecessor, penned an editorial detailing the iniquities he believed would come about if Gascón or former public defender Rachel Rossi were to win the election. In the piece, entitled “Felons, come one, come all,” Debbaudt qualified his argument by writing: “I am obliged to say that it is not necessarily the opinion of the District Attorney’s Office, and it certainly won’t be if felons and morons vote for Gascón and Rossi.”
Now, after Lacey’s loss, the ADDA is carrying on the fight. Its lawsuit represents an early test for Gascón, and prosecutors on both sides of the issue have stepped into the ring. On Jan. 12, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) announced it would file an amicus brief in support of the ADDA after Hanisee asked the association to weigh in. (The CDAA has come under fire in recent days after an audit revealed that it had misspent millions in funds on its lobbying efforts, which are similar in priority to those of the ADDA. That longtime commitment to tough-on-crime politics led a small group of reform-minded DAs, including Gascón, to form an alternative association last year.)
Three days later, Fair and Just Prosecution countered with an amicus brief in support of Gascón’s directive, signed by 65 current and former prosecutors around the country. Reiner and Garcetti, the Los Angeles DAs who served when Nelson and Saavedra were sent to prison, both added their names to the brief—a sign that attitudes around criminal justice and punishment are shifting at the very heart of the system.
But the ADDA’s lawsuit, which none of its members appear to have spoken against, indicates that there’s also a vast portion of that system that feels very differently. Armour, the prison and policing expert, said that divide represents “the existential threat to real reform and transformative change.”
To Armour, the lawsuit’s chances in court are emblematic of this opposition. “We’re going to have some judges who are former prosecutors and conservative law-and-order types making judgments about whether there’s any merit to this action by the DAs,” he told The Appeal. “There’s always a possibility that they will do something that is very partisan, rather than jurisprudentially sound.” Ultimately, Armour said, “I think it’s showing us what a monumental task it will be to turn around our addiction to the carceral state.”
CORRECTION: This piece originally mischaracterized Michael Saavedra and James Nelson’s work in their communities.