Newly-elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón recently took the courageous step of announcing that his office will no longer seek sentencing enhancements in criminal cases.
In response, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer writes, that by doing so, Gascón “pledged to make Los Angeles a sanctuary for criminals” ("COMMUNITY VOICES: LA DA George Gascón has an offer no criminal can refuse," Dec. 27). According to Zimmer, sentencing enhancements are “the most basic state laws designed to address serious, violent and repeat offenders.”
Who are these “serious, violent and repeat” criminals, exactly?
You might have heard of Shane Taylor. He was arrested with 0.14 grams of meth — about a tenth of a packet of sugar. He received 25 years to life under California’s Three Strikes law at the time: the kind of “basic state law” for “repeat offenders” which Gascón will no longer enforce.
Or Jerry Dewayne Williams, who also received 25 years to life under Three Strikes, for stealing a slice of pizza.
Demond Lewis, on the other hand, shot a man in the leg. He received 15 years to life for attempted murder. He then had six separate gun enhancements stacked onto his sentence, adding an extra 94 years to life: gun enhancements which Gascón will no longer enforce.
Demond is the kind of person who District Attorney Zimmer casually calls a criminal who takes “pleasure in using firearms to ratchet up body counts in all types of crimes.”
Is it really justice to sentence a man to 109 years to life for shooting another man in the leg?
Gascón doesn’t think so. He clearly writes, in the Los Angeles prosecutor’s manual, that he wants to reduce sentences for people who have been in prison for 15 years or more, who are older than 60 and who were minors at the time of the crime but were tried as adults.
These are all reasonable — but unfortunately limited — responses to a decades-long breakdown in California’s criminal justice system. Gascón’s courageous stand is long overdue. Excessive sentences leave no possibility for rehabilitation, waste taxpayer dollars, and disproportionately target working poor, black and brown communities.
There are 96,000 people incarcerated in California prisons today. That is almost four times the number in the late 1970s, before the explosion in sentence enhancements driven by the outdated, bankrupt “tough on crime” culture of the 1980s and 1990s which DA Zimmer represents.
Today, almost 80 percent of prisoners have some kind of sentence enhancement. About 25 percent of prisoners have three or more enhancements stacked on. There are 48,000 prisoners with a second or third strike. More than 90 percent of people with a gang enhancement are Black or Latino.
Police and prosecutors have an economic interest in keeping people behind bars as long as possible. Prisons provide employment for correctional officers and profits for the corporations building the prisons. And Kern County leads the pack: it has the highest incarceration rate in all of California.
Prosecutors like Zimmer have, for decades now, successfully sold us all the myth that enhancements like Three Strikes keep crime rates low in California. But in reality, overwhelming research shows that enhancements have little effect on crime rates. And as the George Floyd protests showed us, people are finally fed up with racism and white supremacy in our criminal justice system.
Most prisoners pose little, if any, risk to public safety if released. Almost half of all California prisoners have contracted COVID-19. Safe mass releases from our COVID-infected prisons are perfectly possible, right now.
It’s time to take a long, hard look at mass incarceration. If DA Zimmer truly cared about victims in Kern County, she would think about the real human beings affected by her policies.
Zimmer should stop the fearmongering, stop prosecuting the working poor and other vulnerable groups in Kern County, stop exploiting victims and survivors for political gain and start speaking up for proven solutions like counseling, case management, rehabilitation and reentry services for criminal defendants and prisoners.
Richard Tan is an attorney practicing in the Bay Area.