George Gascon (Photo by Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Gascón is battling a lawsuit, filed by his own line prosecutors and backed by the state DA association, against his criminal justice reforms.

Los Angeles County’s newly elected district attorney George Gascón resigned today from the California District Attorney’s Association (CDAA), the group that represents most California DAs and that is now fighting Gascón’s criminal justice reforms. 

Statewide prosecutors’ associations are among the most punitive forces in the criminal legal system, in California and elsewhere. While they are largely unknown to the general public, they have historically lobbied local and state governments to keep prison sentences long and to protect prosecutors’ vast powers.

Gascón, who took over running the nation’s largest prosecuting agency in December, chided the organization for its opposition to reform in an open letter published online today. Among other criticisms, the letter mentioned the CDAA’s failure to appoint a single person of color to its 17-member board of directors; its opposition a 2014 initiative that Gascón himself authored to lower the severity of some charges; its siphoning money away from environmental and workplace-safety prosecutions to instead lobby against legal-system reform; and its rejection of what Gascón said were “commonsense criminal justice reforms” backed by the majority of Californians.

“CDAA continues to be a member organization solely for those willing to toe the ‘tough on crime’ line,” Gascón wrote today. “For the rest of us, it is a place that fails to support us, our communities, or the pursuit of justice.”

The association has been one of the loudest voices in California urging Sacramento lawmakers and state voters to reject reforms. It has for instance opposed successful ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana or reduce penalties for drug offenses, and fought similar legislation.

“The CDAA has enjoyed a very cushy and close relationship with the California legislature for decades,” Anne Irwin, who heads the reform group Smart Justice California, told The Appeal: Political Report. “They have been unrivaled … and they spoke with one voice. They were able to influence a tremendous amount of legislation over the decades and able to shape criminalization in California.” 

Irwin added that Gascón’s decision could dramatically alter the CDAA’s power in Sacramento and continue to break apart the notion that prosecutors have “one voice.” Los Angeles County and its 10 milion residents represent over one fourth of California’s population.

Gascón, who is a Democrat, is the second sitting DA to leave the CDAA over its opposition to criminal justice reforms. San Joaquin DA Tori Salazar, a Republican, sounded a similar note last year when she announced her own departure, calling on state DAs to “look at ourselves, accept responsibility” for the “generational harm” caused by tough-on-crime policies.

Gascón, the former San Francisco DA and LAPD assistant chief, was elected last year against an incumbent DA on a platform that included progressive promises like never seeking the death penalty and not using sentencing enhancements to trump up “gang” charges against defendants in court. Since his election, he has instructed line prosecutors to not seek cash bail and to not use sentencing enhancements that greatly increase prison terms, among other changes.

But many of his own prosecutors have revolted. At the end of December, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County (ADDA), the group representing Gascón’s employees, sued Gascón to prevent him from enacting his promised reforms. A state judge blocked some of Gascón’s instructions last week.

In January, the CDAA filed an amicus brief in Los Angeles County Superior Court supporting the ADDA’s lawsuit against Gascón and claiming that Gascón’s reforms will ensure “the voices of victims fall silent and the might of the State has failed its most vulnerable.” 

The CDAA’s membership is dominated by prosecutors who advocate a much harsher approach to criminal justice than the one on which Gascón was elected. San Diego County DA Summer Stephan, a former Republican who now identifies as an independent, in January called Gascón’s ideas “unlawful” and attempted to wrest control of a high-profile double-murder case from Gascón’s office by claiming that the accused would not face enough prison time if found guilty.

Today, Gascón fired back and said it is instead the CDAA that is harming Californians.

“Ultimately, CDAA cannot claim a commitment to prosecutorial excellence while misappropriating millions of public dollars, ignoring the will of the voters, and fighting reforms that evidence clearly indicates will enhance safety, racial equity, and save scarce taxpayer resources,” Gascón wrote.

“This appears to be a publicity stunt to divert attention from his favoring criminals at the expense of victims and growing calls for his recall,” El Dorado County DA Vern Pierson, the current CDAA president, told the Political Report in a statement. (Pierson also blamed the organization’s diversity issues on the fact that Gascón himself unseated former L.A. County DA Jackie Lacey, a Black woman, last year.) “As for reform, the CDAA, in fact, sponsors many programs, including DA-initiated diversion prorams and courts for folks who have mental issues, are homeless or veterans. Our prosecutors are working to protect children who live in violent homes because we know they are more likely to become part of the cycle of violence when they reach adulthood.”

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Gascón’s move comes at a time when a new generation of left-leaning prosecutors around the country is rethinking its relationship with the statewide associations  their predecessors have long supported. Besides lobbying legislatures around the country to adopt tougher statutes, these associations have worked to keep their own members in line.

In 2017, for example, after Orange-Osceola (Orlando) State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced she would not seek the death penalty in any cases while in office, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association chucked Ayala under the bus and supported then-Gov. Rick Scott’s efforts to remove her from overseeing any capital cases. 

But these agencies are beginning to lose their grip on America’s criminal legal system. In 2018, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner quit the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and called the group the “voice of the past” when it comes to justice issues. Salazar followed suit by leaving the CDAA last year, and now some prosecutorial candidates are making this into a campaign issue. 

Earlier this month, three candidates running for DA in Manhattan told the Political Report that they would not join the District Attorneys Association of New York (DAASNY), that state’s prosecutorial lobbying arm, if elected. DAASNY, as is typical for these associations, has been fighting efforts to turn the corner from decades of draconian policies in New York It lobbied against New York’s 2019 landmark bail-reform law, for instance, and, since then, has even trained prosecutors on how to use legal loopholes to hold people pretrial anyway.

“Elected prosecutors have, until very recently, been seen as a pivotal part of the punishment system — there’s been a very clear pass-off, that begins with police, who then hand people off to prosecutors,” Irwin told the Political Report. “They’ve been on the same team, pursuing the same goal, which has largely been to hold people accountable through criminalization and incarceration, as much as possible for as long as possible.” 

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In September, a set of California DAs formed a new lobbying association, the Prosecutors Alliance of California, with a stated goal of promoting policies more aligned with criminal justice reform. This came on the heels of a similar group that emerged in Virginia in July to lobby that state’s legislature to pass laws reducing incarceration rates and increasing alternatives to imprisonment.

The California group includes Salazar and Gascón, as well as San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton, who are still in the CDAA.

Gascón himself had stayed in the CDAA until today, including throughout his tenure as the San Francisco DA.

In his letter today, Gascón said that, now that California has a progressive competitor to the CDAA, he no longer needs to support an association that won’t support him.

“I participated in CDAA for nine years,” he said. “I paid dues, attended our sessions, and assigned staff to the legislative committee all in hopes of building an organization that took account of my perspective and that of a majority of Californians. What has become clear to me after a decade of participation is that the organization is unwilling to change and grow with its members and our constituents.”

Roughly a third of California lawmakers represent Los Angeles County, and Irwin expects that the CDAA losing the membership of that county’s DA will alter the political pressures legislators face in the coming years. Sentencing reforms and bills that promote alternatives to policing are on the state’s agenda in the 2021 session.

“My prediction is that CDAA, like other law-enforcement groups facing their own falling out of public favor, will resort to what they know is their most potent tool to regain public trust: fearmongering,” she said.

This article has been updated with a statement from Vern Pierson, the El Dorado County DA and the current CDAA president.