LA Voice Fireside Chat with District Attorney George Gascón. (302488)
LA Voice Fireside Chat with District Attorney George Gascón. Credit: LA Voice

Reforming the prison system and ending mass incarceration for residents in Los Angeles County, may seem like a big ask. However, L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón knows he has to do his part to keep his end of the bargain with people who voted for him.

“Hold me accountable,” said Gascón, who defeated outgoing district attorney Jackie Lacy in November 2020.

The new district attorney’s plans for justice reform were at the heart of a virtual Fireside Chat with Rev. Zach Hoover and Justice Reformer Tim Kornegay, held on March 4.

The event was organized by LA Voice, a multi-racial, multi-faith community organization that “aims to awaken people to their own power, training them to organize together” to transform LA County.

“There’s constant disinformation from the purveyors of the status quo,” said Rev. Zach Hoover, executive director of LA Voice. “We have to be ambassadors of the truth.”

Specifically, Gascón was asked to share what inspired his vision for reforming the prison system and ending mass incarceration for residents affected by the criminal justice system in LA County.

“It was an endless process of incarcerating poor people in the name of justice and safety,” Gascón said as he recalled his time as a patrol officer in the Los Angeles Police Department.

Gascón, a high school dropout, is now positioning himself as one of the most transformational and influential district attorneys in the nation. In fact, Gascón said he became a lawyer, while he was still a member of LAPD. He has a unique dichotomy with the criminal justice system as he has served as Assistant Chief of the LAPD; a district attorney in San Francisco County; and now as district attorney in Los Angeles County.

“When I was a little kid, I had a life changing experience with the police,” said Tim Kornegay, who is now devoted to justice reform in California.

Kornegay asked Gascón about what it is like to inherit an office that has disproportionately sent Black and Brown people to prison and even sentenced them to death.

“One of the things I said is that we will no longer seek the death penalty,” Gascón shared. “We will no longer prosecute kids as adults… we know the human brain is not fully developed until we are in our mid-twenties.”

Gascón’s day one reform directives also included eliminating cash bail and not arbitrarily adding extra years to criminal sentences.

“Sometimes we convict the wrong person,” Gascón added as another reason why he’s not seeking the death penalty.

“The way to reduce crime is healing,” Gascón said. “We have to do it in a way that offers redemption.”

Gascón also addressed the emerging movement to recall him. He said the anti-reform movement is motivated by money and people who profit off keeping the criminal justice system as is.

“We are proud to have you as our D.A. We are praying for your success,” Hoover shared.

Hoover then asked Gascón about the next steps in the justice reform movement.

“Our community is hurting (during this pandemic),” Gascón said before adding that crime is up over the past 12 months. However, more policing is not the answer.

“Reform is going to happen, reimagining is going to happen. but it is fragile,” Gascón added.

Meanwhile, faith leaders said they are focused on shining a light on the positive work that is being done in the criminal justice reform arena.

Gascón was also asked to address the current and future state of prison and jails in California.

“I think the most important role is to not send people to incarceration if you don’t have to,” Gascón said. “We have to make sure that we’re not incarcerating people because they’re poor or have a mental illness.”

However, Gascón said that’s not to say that some people won’t be incarcerated but their time behind bars should be about healing and not simply mental and physical punishment.

Gascón said taking someone’s freedom by incarcerating them is punishment enough. After that, it should be about humane reform like the open prison model that is often used in Germany. That model would also lower recidivism rates, Gascón said.

Kornegay asked what community members can continue to do to support criminal justice reform.

“We cannot do this work unless we hold everyone accountable,” Gascón said, concluding that the community can join his efforts, along with officials and law enforcement leaders in the city and Los Angeles County.