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‘A tsunami of change’: how the protests fueled a new crop of prosecutors

LOS ANGELES – After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis this summer and America erupted in protest, money started flooding the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s race.

George Gascón, the former San Francisco District Attorney, seized the momentum swirling the streets and delivered on promises to reduce incarceration, tackle racial prejudice and reopen old police shootings that the incumbent had refused to continue. At his swearing-in ceremony on Monday, Mr. Gascón immediately put his plans in motion, announcing the end of the cash bond request and other sweeping political changes.

Los Angeles, with the country’s largest attorney’s office and largest prison system, was at the forefront of communities, urban and rural, in liberal and conservative states, going in the opposite direction of the law message. and President Trump’s order last month to elect prosecutors who promised to send fewer people to jail.

The momentum that propelled Mr. Gascón to victory played out similarly in Austin, Texas, where a candidate promising to end prosecutions for some drug sales won, and in Orlando, where voters won. elected Monique Worrell, whose background includes investigating wrongful conviction charges. .

In Georgia, Jackie Johnson, the Republican district attorney accused of mismanaging the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger pursued and shot by a former investigator in his office and his son, was ousted by an independent who had the support from activists. indignant at the handling of the case.

“It’s telling, because it’s not just in bluer urban areas like Los Angeles,” said Miriam Krinsky, former federal prosecutor and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, which advises prosecutors and candidates for the prosecution. search for change. “We have seen a number of DAs elected in Georgia. We have seen elected ADs in Florida. We have seen reform-minded ADs won in Michigan and Texas, Colorado and Columbus, Ohio.

As the movement gains momentum, with more progressive prosecutors taking office in each electoral cycle, they have increasingly come together to influence policy and make significant changes to the US criminal justice system. , despite the increasing repression of police unions and state officials.

In a joint statement last month, dozens of prosecutors across the country called for reducing the number of people on parole and probation. And in California, several prosecutors, including Mr. Gascon’s successor in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, have formed an alliance to promote progressive candidates and take a stand on state law.

Taken together, their efforts challenge the power and money of law enforcement unions, which have typically supported traditional and crime-resistant candidates and have been seen by critics as opposing efforts to to change the font.

In Los Angeles, which was considered the most important award for progressive activists in a wave of victories that began with the 2016 election for Kim Foxx in Chicago and Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis, the two candidates at least framed the election result. in part, around the reexamination of the police and racial disparities in the criminal justice system imposed on the nation by the murder of Mr. Floyd, a black man, by a white policeman.

Mr. Gascón’s opponent, Jackie Lacey, who is black and was the first woman to become a prosecutor in Los Angeles, told reporters when announcing her concession: “You can say that one day the results of this election are the result of our season. of discontent and a demand to see a tsunami of change. “

Mr. Gascón, a Cuban émigré who began his law enforcement career patrolling the streets of Los Angeles as a police officer, has always been a viable candidate – he got enough votes in the primaries March to force a second round with Ms. Lacey, a fellow Democrat. . He rejected the idea that activism around Mr. Floyd’s death had been decisive in his election, but admitted that it “had changed the dynamics of this race”.

“There is no doubt that the murder of George Floyd has shaken the conscience of this country in many places where people were not concerned with this work before,” said Mr. Gascón, declaring his victory.

Los Angeles recently sent people to jail at a rate four times that of its northern rival, San Francisco, where Mr. Gascón passed a series of changes after becoming its district attorney in 2011. Ms. Lacey had the support from several law enforcement unions, while Mr. Gascon enjoyed the backing of Black Lives Matter activists and wealthy individuals including George Soros and Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix.

In total, more than $ 19 million was poured into their race, according to the Los Angeles Times, a record for a district attorney’s race.

Sensing the mood in the streets after Mr. Floyd’s murder, many Liberal leaders in Los Angeles, including Mayor Eric M. Garcetti and Congressman Adam Schiff, withdrew their endorsement of Ms. Lacey and backed Mr. Gascon. His message of reduced incarceration resonated with voters despite an upsurge in gun violence and homicides in Los Angeles, a similar trend seen in other U.S. cities that experts attribute to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Gascón’s victory came as Californians also voted against a measure, Proposition 20, which would have rolled back previous reforms by reinstituting tougher sentences and reducing parole options, and approved a measure reinstating the right to vote of those convicted of crimes. And as a direct result of the protests and nationwide calls to “defund the police,” Los Angeles voters approved a move to transfer money from prisons to social services.

After taking office on Monday, M. Gascón promulgated many of his campaign pledges as a policy, including efforts to review thousands of old cases to determine whether the prosecutor’s office should ask courts to reduce sentences or overturn convictions. Mr Gascón also said he would end the prosecution of most non-violent offenders for the first time and ban his office from seeking the death penalty or increased jail terms for accused gang members.

“Whether you are a protester, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me,” he said after taking the oath, adding: “We can break multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma, arrest and recidivism that led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation. “

His sweeping political changes, however, met resistance from supporters of more traditional law enforcement. “His plans will do nothing other than further victimize Los Angeles residents,” the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a police union, said in a statement.

In his campaign, Mr. Gascón formed a broad coalition of support among diverse communities in Los Angeles, including white voters who said they were moved by the summer protests and police gunfire in the city and across the country. .

“The police have gone too far,” said Janice Bronco, 72, who is white and lives in Lakewood, a small town in southern Los Angeles County. She decided to vote for Mr. Gascon after seeing an increase in reporting of black men and women being killed by police. “I am a supporter of the police, but many are getting killed,” she said.

Ms Bronco said she was concerned that Mr Gascon had been too lenient with the crime during his tenure as prosecutor in San Francisco, but still voted for him. “Something must change, especially in Los Angeles”