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California Focus: Cash bail issue is the key to state’s 2nd-biggest recall

In case George Gascon, the embattled district attorney of Los Angeles County, wonders why recall fever has made him the No. 2 target among California officials, he need look no further than cash bail.

No, Gascon did not order his almost 1,000 deputies to stop seeking cash bail for all defendants. Rather, he ordered them not to try for it on those accused of misdemeanors, “non-serious” felonies or nonviolent felonies.

So accused murderers, most rapists and some assault suspects will still be held on bail in the nation’s most populous county, in accordance with the lopsided statewide vote last fall against Proposition 25, which aimed to ratify a new state law ending all cash bail.

But anyone who thinks only minor crimes are among those Gascon ordered his deputies to exclude from bail is in for a surprise.

Offenses legally defined as “nonviolent” and “non-serious” include things like solicitation to commit murder, many felony assaults, felony domestic violence resulting in a traumatic condition, resisting a peace officer, molesting a child over 15 and sexual penetration of a mentally or developmentally disabled person.

Most Californians would consider any of these crimes both serious and violent — but Gascon wants anyone accused of them released onto the streets on their own recognizance.

Most folks would probably also believe a suspect arrested for sucker-punching an elderly Asian woman in a hate crime may have committed a serious offense. But that suspect would be freed pending trial if deputies follow Gascon’s orders.

One result is that some Gascon deputies are staging a campaign of passive resistance to their boss’ order. They sometimes remain silent when judges ask whether or how much bail a prosecutor wants assessed.

The silence leaves judges free to impose bail where they believe it’s justified.

Gascon also demanded immediately after assuming office late last year that his deputies cease asking for enhanced sentences in gang-related crimes. His rationale is that the great majority of those lengthened sentences are imposed on minority defendants, mostly Blacks and Latinos.

But what if that’s who commits most gang-related crimes? Is it racist to recognize reality?

Yes, recall fever is afoot across California, with local officials facing petition drives seeking their ouster from many city councils and school boards, among other offices. No doubt, much of this is due to the recall drive against Gov. Gavin Newsom, which heightened realization that disgruntled voters can reverse election outcomes if they can drum up enough support.

But the Gascon recall drive probably would have happened even if Newsom weren’t being targeted, because of the dramatic nature of his actions, which cause large numbers of crime victims to live in fear of repeat offenses by suspects set free soon after their arrests.

Those fears are legitimate. Recidivism is commonplace among convicts supposedly rehabilitated in state prisons.

A very recent 34-state federal study found three-quarters of released convicts are arrested again within five years of their release.

So it’s easy to imagine how many more repeat crimes are likely to come from people arrested for very harmful crimes and then quickly released without bail.

It’s true Gascon, like Chesa Boudin, his San Francisco counterpart, opposed cash bail during his election campaign. But it’s reasonable to argue that as a public official, he nevertheless must act according to the voters’ wishes, as made known very clearly in their votes on ballot measures.

But Gascon sneered at voters from the moment he took office, issuing light-sentence orders for serious criminals on the absurd theory that letting them out sooner will cause them to be better citizens on release.

He’s correct that most enhanced sentences are meted out to minorities. But no one has ever proven those sentenced did not commit serious crimes.

In fact, most crimes by Blacks and Latinos are committed against others in the same groups because angry and frustrated people are more likely to lash out against those physically closest to them. Giving them easy outs and own-recognizance release while awaiting trial will not lower crime among minorities.

Doing that will take massive changes in education, health and other areas of public policy.

If Gascon wonders why the recall drive against him has been so vigorous and his poll standing so low, he need look no further than those realities.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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