The field of candidates vying to be the next District Attorney of Los Angeles County is crowded, both literally and figuratively. There are eleven contenders aiming to unseat incumbent George Gascón – the largest number of contenders to ever throw their hats into the race. 

Although Gascón has led the office for the past 4 years, a recent USC/Dornsife poll found that a mere 15% of voters were committed to seeing him re-elected. Nearly two thirds were undecided according to the January 2024 poll. 

Gascón’s journey to become LA’s DA began when he resigned as the San Francisco district attorney in 2019. He ran for office in Los Angeles the following year as a progressive, reform minded prosecutor. On his first day in office, he introduced reforms such as the removal of cash bail for anyone who is charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent, non-serious felony; the end to the filing of first-time misdemeanor offenses associated with poverty and mental health like loitering or public intoxication; the end of sentencing enhancements. Gascón also instructed prosecutors to no longer seek the death penalty. 

Gascón cited scientific research on decarceration and reoffending as a driving force behind his edicts. Several policies, including prosecuting children as adults as seeking life sentences against defendants, were later reintroduced after an initial ban by Gascón.  

Since his election, Gascón has been branded as a dangerous friend of criminals by right wing talking heads and local police unions. Three attempts to recall him during his term have failed. 

Jonathan Hatami, an LA County deputy district attorney and candidate for District Attorney who polled at 8% of the vote in the January USC poll, has been a vocal critic of his boss, and supporter of the recall effort. Hatami is best known for getting convictions in the horrific murders of Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez. When asked at a recent debate to rate how safe he felt in LA County on a scale of 1 to 10, he said “zero.”

Deputy district attorney Maria Ramirez and former federal prosecution Jeff Chemerinsky have criticized Gascón’s directives. Chemerinsky has promised to undo them all if elected. 

All but one of the challengers for the seat have positioned themselves to the right of Gascón. 

Dan Kapelovitz, a defense attorney and former candidate in the recall election against Governor Gavin Newsom, states on his website that he will never seek the death penalty, gang enhancements, nor try a juvenile as an adult. Kapelovitz has previously stated that he supports defunding the police.

Kapelovitz is an anomaly amongst the rest of the candidates competing for the office. They come from an almost exclusively prosecutorial background, including current deputy district attorneys, LA County prosecutors who went on to become judges, and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney General. The group is almost completely united in branding Los Angeles County as an “unsafe” “wasteland”, and Gascón as the sole person responsible. 

That doesn’t pan out in reality. Violent crime in the City of Los Angeles has continued to decrease. Compared to 2022, homicides in 2024 are down 20%, reported rapes are down 45%, and robberies down 10%. During the same time period, the LAPD reports non-violent property crime decreased about 2% when compared to 2022. 

Police agencies, who are responsible for gathering evidence and arresting suspects to assist the district attorney’s office in making the case for prosecution of suspects, are largely ineffective. A February report from the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and advocating for criminal justice reform, found that law enforcement in Los Angeles County solves a mere 15% of crimes. Despite this, police budgets have continued to rise

Smash and grab robberies, which have attracted a number of in-depth stories from local news affiliates, are featured prominently as issues to combat on the websites of several candidates. There were 11,945 shoplifting reports in the City of Los Angeles in 2023. Gascón’s office is currently prosecuting over 200 cases netted by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force. 

“There will be people going to prison and jail as a result of this, and we’re not looking the other way,” Gascón said at a news conference on the issue. “The people that are engaged in this activity are being held accountable. I will be severe in the consequences.” 

David Milton, a retired LA County Superior Court judge, says on his candidate website that should he be elected district attorney, “‘smash & grab’ and ‘flash mob’ theft shall be charged as burglary and robbery, not petty theft.” John McKinney, a current LA County deputy district attorney, promises to deter retail robberies and burglaries overall with a “renewed focus on these crimes.” McKinney drew press coverage for his prosecution of Eric Holder in the murder of rapper Nipsey Hussle, though misspells the artist’s name as “Nipsey Hustle” on his campaign website. 

Although smash and grab robberies dominate news coverage of retail theft, retailers themselves say internal theft is just as concerning. According to a survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF), nearly 57% of retailers identified internal theft as a growing risk. Retail theft has become a media-driven lightning-rod issue in LA County, as across the county, despite relatively small dollar amounts. By contrast, 88% of low-wage Los Angeles county workers are cheated out of $26-28 million each week. None of the candidates reference these wage thefts on their campaign websites.

Seven of the eleven challengers state that they believe it is the responsibility of the district attorney to work on a solution to the ongoing homelessness epidemic within the county. San Bernardino County deputy district attorney Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson, LA County Superior Court judge Debra Archuleta, Craig Mitchell and Ramirez vaguely describe collaborative initiatives between courts and policing agencies as a method. McKinney says that he will “recognize the nexus between homelessness and crime,” while LA County deputy district attorney Eric Siddall plans to “direct local prosecutors to enforce laws to clear encampments and protect and clean up parks, sidewalks and other public spaces.” 

Former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman pledges to “remove dangerous, violent, unsafe and unsanitary homeless encampments on public property in full accordance with the law.” Hochman, also a one-time candidate for California Attorney General, made headlines in Los Angeles in 2017 as defense attorney for disgraced former LA County Sheriff, Lee Baca. Baca was convicted of obstructing an investigation into the county’s jails and lying to the FBI.

The insistence of aggressive prosecution is a commonality between the candidates. Siddall and Masson seek to prioritize resources for prosecution against criminal suspects. Milton and Mitchell, both candidates with a judiciary background, explicitly spell out their desires to see more incarceration. Milton says that he will “urge maximum sentences for repeat offenders,” and Mitchell promises to “ensure that there is a fair and just consequence for every criminal act.”  

Many of the candidates also share an alliance to a return of the cash bail system. Hochman, Masson, Mitchell and Archuleta pledge to end the zero-bail policy introduced by Gascón, despite the fact that research shows cash bail has no impact on public safety

A right-leaning, tough on crime backlash to progressive district attorneys is not unique to Los Angeles. In San Francisco, Brooke Jenkins defeated Chesa Boudin in a 2022 recall election after she resigned her position as a deputy district attorney to join the recall effort. After taking office, a court found Jenkins committed prosecutorial misconduct in the case that launched her recall efforts. In Alameda County, opponents to district attorney Pamela Price, who took office last year, have raised about  $2.2 million to recall her. Both Boudin and Price, like Gascón, have faced consistent accusations of being “soft on crime”.

All of the recall efforts against the incumbent LA district attorney failed. The crowded field is expected to work in Gascòn’s favor, and allow him to move forward to November’s general election – a true measurement of how voters feel about the progressive DA.