Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz is shining a light on one of the most troubling new developments at the LA DA’s office. Newly-elected district attorney George Gascon eliminated special enhancements for hate crimes on his first day in office. Koretz pointed out that hate crimes of all kinds have increased significantly over recent years across the United States in general and in Los Angeles in particular. After two weeks of outcry, Gascon was forced to reverse himself.
Hate Crimes Are Up
According to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, violent hate crimes grew roughly 65%, to the highest rate reported since 2008. Black people remain the largest group of victims. Even though they are 9% of the population of LA County, they are 47% of racial hate crime victims. White supremacist crime jumped 38%. Black people are also overrepresented as victims of sexual orientation and anti-transgender crimes. 93% percent of gender-motivated crimes were of a violent nature, followed by sexual orientation (79%), race (75%), and religion (32%). Anti-transgender crimes rose 64% to the largest number ever reported.
Los Angeles is experiencing an increase in hate crimes at a time when California is seeing the opposite. The California State Attorney General reported that the number of hate crime events throughout
the state decreased 4.8% from 1,066 in 2018 to 1,015 in 2019. Interestingly, the number of hate crime victims in California grew 0.8% percent from 1,237 to 1,247.
Despite these troubling numbers, officials believe the true number of hate crimes is even higher. The US Justice Department reported in 2017 that more than half of all hate-motivated incidents, including hate crimes, were not reported to law enforcement.
The District Attorney Could Do Something About It
The law gives prosecutors the ability to enhance the punishment for those who commit hate crimes. After all, assaulting someone because of their race is worse than simply assaulting them. That’s why the legislature passed Penal Code section 422.75 “Enhanced penalties for hate crimes.” This law was passed to fight bigotry and support civil rights. It was based on a model bill drafted by the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organization dedicating to fighting antisemitism and other forms of hate. Professor Susan Gellman discussed the problem in 1991, when section 422.75 was passed.
Without question, bigotry-motivated crime, like all bigoted action and expression, causes real and serious harm to its direct victims, to other members of the victims’ groups, to members of other minority groups, and to society as a whole. Whatever policy and constitutional problems ethnic intimidation statutes may have, these statutes are the reflection of legislatures’ recognition that these harms are real and significant.Susan Gellman, Sticks and Stones Can Put You in Jail, but Can Words Increase Your Sentence? Constitutional and Policy Dilemmas of Ethnic Intimidation Laws (1991) 39 UCLA L. Rev. 333, 340
Gellman concludes with this eloquent appeal for the criminal justice to do something. When the criminal justice system “treat[s] racist attacks as pranks, their actions may be viewed by members of disempowered groups as government tolerance or even approval.”
Penal Code section 422.75 is a powerful tool. If a person is convicted of a felony that is also proven to be a hate crime, he will receive and additional prison sentence of one, two or three years. If the hate crime was done in concert with another person, the punishment is an additional two, three, or four years in state prison. For example, if two men beat up a transgender woman, both men could face felony assault charges carrying a maximum sentence of four years. If the assault is proven to be a hate crime, the maximum sentence jumps to eight years. That additional time sends a strong message: hate crimes are not tolerated in Los Angeles. Or at least they weren’t, until now.
Gascon Is Choosing Not to Fight For Hate Crime Victims
The DA is charged with enforcing these laws. The Commission notes, “the District Attorney’s Office handles the great majority of hate crime prosecutions in Los Angeles County.” Before Gascon got to work, his office filed charges in 94% of the hate crimes brought to them by police. That’s 64 defendants. “Of those, 60 adult defendants and four juveniles were charged with hate crime enhancements.” In other words, the vast majority got the additional time they deserved. Under Gascon’s new orders, that number would fall to zero.
That is astonishing. Councilman Paul Koretz is right to speak out. The LA DA went from aggressively protecting the rights of hate crime victims to doing nothing overnight.
For an excellent overview of the history and development of hate crime laws, see 39 UCLA L. Rev. 333 (1991-1992) Sticks and Stones Can Put You in Jail, but Can Words Increase Your Sentence – Constitutional and Policy Dilemmas of Ethnic Intimidation Laws.
On December 18, Gascon reversed himself and allowed the filing of the hate crimes enhancement. This is the second area he had been forced to retreat since his special directives were issued.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League issues the following statement:
“George Gascon is providing a MasterClass on the dangers of a politician running the D.A.’s office instead of an experienced prosecutor. It took a national outcry for him to understand that child rapists, human traffickers and perpetrators of violent hate crimes should spend some more time behind bars. Yet he’s still willing to go easy on gang members who terrorize our neighborhoods or criminals that shoot cops in the back of the head. He still doesn’t get that crime victims need an authentic voice for justice, not a politician that says one thing and does another — we have enough of those.”