What Are Los Angeles DA Special Directives?
After being sworn into office on December 7, 2020, new Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón issued several special directives to create changes in the field of criminal law. He recognizes that injustices in the criminal courts can result in severe consequences that extend far beyond the accused individual to cause substantial, lasting damage to entire communities. To fix laws that ultimately undermine the principles of fairness, justice, and equality, Gascón instituted the following data-driven reforms:
Special Directive 20-06 (Pretrial Release Policy)
This directive seeks to reform cash bail by ensuring it does not result in unnecessary periods of pretrial incarceration that can significantly harm individuals, their families, and the community as a whole. All individuals charged with crimes shall receive a release under presumption of their own recognizance without conditions. The court may consider pretrial detention only when it has been determined necessary for protecting public safety. Such conditions must be related to the charges and may only be established after a thorough evaluation provides clear, convincing evidence that the defendant’s release carries a high likelihood of the defendant causing great bodily harm to other people or refusing to return to court for trial.
Cash bail was originally developed to incentivize defendants to attend court proceedings, but evidence demonstrates that most people return to court regardless of their financial stake in the case. In fact, very few people intentionally flee prosecution or engage in violent offenses after securing pretrial release. Instead of being effective, cash bail constructs a two-tiered justice system in which individuals accused of crimes who possess enough financial resources may earn pretrial freedom, while those lacking these resources must remain incarcerated from the time of the arrest to the trial date. Such policies disproportionately impact low-income communities of color. Additionally, individuals detained before trial due to the inability to meet bail are more likely to offer guilty pleas, resulting in a criminal record that creates sizable obstacles to employment and economic advancement.
Special Directive 20-07 (Misdemeanor Case Management)
The misdemeanor case management directive orders that the prosecution of a misdemeanor offense must involve consideration of the accused individual’s health and well-being along with the public safety of the community. Criminal courts should not force pretrial incarceration in cases where the defendant’s crime relates to the unavailability of access to affordable housing, appropriate mental health services, or substance abuse treatment. The court must decline or dismiss these charges without conditions before arraignment unless certain exceptions exist. Rather than creating a criminal record on undeserving grounds, the court should direct defendants convicted of misdemeanors to the services or treatment providers they need.
The consequences of receiving a misdemeanor conviction, even in the absence of incarceration, can create formidable obstacles toward employment, education, housing, government benefits, and immigration. Costs and fees associated with these convictions divert the defendant’s limited resources into the justice system, preventing them from meeting financial obligations like medical care or rent. Studies show that prosecuting misdemeanor offenses causes only a minimal long-term effect on public safety and sometimes actually undermines it. Convicting and incarcerating individuals rather than providing them with access to the social services they need exacerbates the underlying issues contributing to their crimes and encourages recidivism.
Special Directive 20-08 (Sentencing Enhancements/Allegations)
Directive 20-08 attempts to undo the decades of significant harm to individuals and communities caused by extreme sentencing laws passed in the 1990s. It advises courts to cease filing any “prior strike” enhancements or “gang enhancements” and to withdraw or dismiss such enhancements from charging documents in pending cases and ignore them in sentencing determinations. The directive does not impact the following: hate crimes, abuse of elders or dependent adults, physical or sexual abuse of children, sexual abuse of adults, human sex trafficking, crimes in which prior conviction forms a part of the crime (such as felon possessing a firearm), cases of extensive physical injury inflicted upon the victim, or cases involving the use of a weapon in a manner that poses an extreme, immediate risk to someone’s life.
Extreme sentencing laws passed during the “tough on crime” era of California history directly caused the prison population to skyrocket from around 23,000 people in 1980 to an incredible 200,000 people currently incarcerated. In San Francisco, sentencing enhancements contributed to one of every four years of a jail or prison sentence. Gang enhancements unfairly targeted young, black, and Hispanic men, who comprise over 90% of adults serving sentences with gang enhancements in California prisons. Evidence indicates that long sentences increase the risk of reoffending in the future, as the traumas experienced make newly released prisoners unable to reintegrate into society. Such sentences also impose unreasonable financial and public health burdens on communities.
Special Directive 20-09 (Youth Justice)
This directive governs the prosecution of youth offenders by ordering courts to seek reasonable alternatives to detention and consider diversion of charges the default position in these cases. Research demonstrates that young people share certain characteristics that must be accounted for when determining sentencing, including unique vulnerabilities, such as impulsivity, risk-taking, vulnerability to peer pressure, inability to appreciate consequences of their actions, and lack of control over home and family situations. Along with these vulnerabilities, the court must also consider a youth offender’s capacity for continuing growth and maturation, meaning they possess limited culpability compared to adult offenders and offer greater potential for rehabilitation.
This directive orders a prosecutorial approach based on keeping young offenders from entering the juvenile justice system and, in cases where they must do so, utilizing the “lightest touch” or least restrictive measures needed to support public safety. This means reforming the juvenile system by employing scientific research to create effective solutions for youth needs, focusing on developing a collaborative approach that fosters youth development, and investing in community services that help young adults thrive. The directive features a lengthy list of stipulations regarding filing decisions, petitions, transparency, detention, and disposition and resolution of cases, all with the goal of replacing incarceration with rehabilitation.
Special Directive 20-10 (Habeas Corpus Litigation Unit)
Directive 20-10 establishes the aforementioned unit, also referred to as HABLIT, to protect against wrongful convictions by ensuring that every case in the criminal defense system is handled with the objective of reaching a fair, just outcome. Wrongful convictions occur with remarkable frequency, including cases where the court obtains convictions by committing due process violations or other fundamental errors that deny a defendant their constitutional right to a fair trial. This directive orders the court to conduct a good-faith review to thoroughly investigate every potentially valid claim brought forward in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. It also addresses previous unfair convictions and offers remedial solutions to align the sentence with modern standards of justice.
Special Directive 20-11 (Death Penalty Policy)
This directive orders the District Attorney’s Office to stop seeking the death penalty while deciding sentences for convictions, to no longer defend any existing death sentences, and to refuse to seek an execution date for individuals already sentenced to death. The death penalty undermines the moral authority of the U.S. justice system for a variety of reasons. It disproportionately affects defendants of color, especially in California, with people of color comprising 59% of individuals on California death row and 89% of those on death row in Los Angeles County. Capital punishment is extraordinarily expensive and serves no purpose to the community because state-sanctioned deaths do not actually deter crime. Finally, and most importantly, imposing the death penalty carries a high risk of ordering the execution of an innocent person. From 1973 to 2004, one in 25 individuals sentenced to death were later proven to have received erroneous convictions.
Special Directive 20-12 (Victim Services)
Directive 20-12 focuses on directing the attention and resources of the criminal justice system to bring justice and healing to victims of violent crimes. The goal of this directive is to ensure victims retain the right and ability to pursue prosecution of the offenders and to offer vital support services to help them during recovery. Victims typically experience the ongoing effects of trauma for years and need financial resources to properly heal, a process that takes far longer than the amount of time it takes to pass sentence. This directive provides guidelines for how the Bureau of Victim Services (BVS) handles this kind of case and requires this agency to support all survivors, regardless of their cooperation level, reporting actions, immigration status, or documentation of citizenship.
Special Directive 2013 (Conviction Integrity Unit)
This directive outlines expectations for the Bureau of Prosecution Support Operations’ Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), previously named the Conviction Review Unit. This agency must collaborate to conduct strategic assessments of convictions, verifying the integrity of any that have been challenged and providing solutions for the convictions it concludes to be wrongful. To reduce the frequency of wrongful convictions and encourage community confidence in the justice system, the CIU will collect and analyze data regarding the causes of these convictions and maintain transparency throughout the process of review by providing regular reports on the findings of such reviews to the public.
Special Directive 20-14 (Resentencing)
The resentencing directive orders the District Attorney’s Office to reevaluate prisoners after they have served 15 years of their sentence to determine if they meet the criteria for resentencing. Wide-ranging research demonstrates that the sentences imposed in the U.S., in the state of California, and in Los Angeles County extend far too long, resulting in high costs and harm to the community while proving ineffective at discouraging criminal activity. This directive was designed to address the injustice of people serving prison terms according to outdated policies and correct this injustice by applying new policies to sentencing decisions. It describes the standards cases must meet to receive review and outlines rules for handling them.
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