District attorney backs down from controversial hate crime reform after outcry from LGBT+ groups

The change led to a wave of protest and concern from the LGBT+ community and civil rights groups. (George Gascón for District Attorney)

The newly-elected district attorney for Los Angeles County has backed away from a plan to scrap sentence enhancements for hate crimes as part of criminal justice reforms.

George Gascón had caused alarm within his first weeks on the job this month when he issued a sweeping criminal justice directive banning enhancements that can increase sentences for certain types of offence, such as crimes against elders and hate crimes.

The Democratic politician had argued that sentence enhancements feed the problem of mass incarceration. Gascón said: “People that commit a crime, they are going to face accountability. And that accountability will be proportionate to the crime. Enhancements do not have anything to do with accountability.”

According to Los Angeles Magazine, the directive had a serious impact on two cases involving violent attacks against transgender women, with prosecutors forced to ask for hate crime charges to be dismissed over the stabbing of transgender activist Daniela Hernandez and violent attack on Instagram influencer Eden the Doll.

The judge in the Hernandez case opted to retain the enhancements after hearing an impassioned plea from the victim, while the decision in the Eden the Doll case was deferred pending testimony from the victims.

Wave of anger over hate crime change.

The change led to a wave of protest and concern from the LGBT+ community and civil rights groups. The Anti-Defamation League was among those to challenge Gascón, who had boasted on the campaign trail of his history of combating racism and homophobia.

New Los Angeles district attorney George Gascón (Shawn Calhoun/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
New Los Angeles district attorney George Gascón (Shawn Calhoun/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Jeffrey Abrams of ADL Los Angeles insisted: “Since hate violence has a unique serious impact on the community, it is entirely appropriate to acknowledge that this form of criminal conduct merits more substantial punishment.”

“By making members of targeted communities fearful, angry and suspicious of other groups – and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them – these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.”

Los Angeles County, home to ten million people, is the most populous county in the United States.

District attorney changes policy over ‘concerns’.

After the outpouring of anger, and pressure from the city council, Gascón said on Friday (18 December) he would amend the blanket ban to permit “narrowly construed” exceptions, permitting “enhanced sentences in cases involving the most vulnerable victims and in specified extraordinary circumstances”.

In a statement, he said: “While most have welcomed the reforms I have implemented, the largest concerns I have heard centre around my policy of ending all enhancements.
To be responsive to your input, I have decided to make some adjustments to my initial directives.

“To be clear, I implemented this policy with no exceptions because enhancements have never been shown to enhance safety, but excessive sentences have been shown to increase recidivism and drive future victimization.

“But some victims remain concerned and I want you to know that we are listening. I am listening.

“Accordingly, my office will adjust its policy to enable enhancements to be brought in a limited range of circumstances.

“Deputies in my office may file enhancements in cases involving the most vulnerable such as cases involving children, the elderly and hate motivated crimes.”

He added “I recognize there are some victims that want this office to seek the maximum sentence permissible in their case, but punishment must be in the community’s best interest, proportional, and it must serve a rehabilitative or restorative purpose.”