Minutes after Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon was sworn into office, he issued a decree that ended a 40-year policy of having Deputy District Attorneys represent the public at parole hearings. The policy of sending one of the people’s lawyers to attend the hearings in person began in the late 1970s. It was continued by every District Attorney without interruption, from John Vann de Kamp to Jackie Lacey. It was considered an essential function of the District Attorney’s Office.
Most inmates in prison are serving a determinate amount of time and are not subject to a parole hearing. Indeterminate sentences, on the other hand, are open-ended terms of imprisonment and are reserved for the most serious and violent crimes in the law. Murder, pre-meditated attempted murder, and aggravated sexual assaults are a few examples of crimes that carry an indeterminate life term that receive a parole hearing after serving a prescribed minimum sentence. These parole hearings determine whether an inmate is suitable for release from prison or required to serve additional time.
When George Gascon abdicated his responsibility to staff these important hearings, he left the public and victims without representation at the hearing.
Without a deputy district attorney in the room to witness and respond to information that may be incomplete or misleading, neither the public interest nor the victim’s rights are adequately protected. Furthermore, the process lacks transparency, and victims are left to fend for themselves without adequate support.
As problematic as Gascon’s policy of not attending parole hearings is, it at least acknowledged a legal duty to inform victims about the occurrence of parole hearings. Gascon’s Special Directive 20-14 states, “This Office will continue to meet its obligation to notify and advise victims under California law...”.
This week, without any change in the law, George Gascon stunningly decided that it is no longer appropriate for the District Attorney’s Office to notify victims and next of kin about scheduled parole hearings.
Victims and their next of kin are now at the mercy of being notified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that, by one estimate, only has contact information for about 25% of eligible victims and surviving family members.
I anticipated this latest disturbing decision by George Gascon. Earlier this year, I helped craft a bill in cooperation with the state legislature granting rights to victims and their legal representatives at parole hearings, including the right to be notified of scheduled parole hearings by District Attorneys in all 58 counties.
The bill I helped draft was designated Assembly Bill 2409, also known as “The Marquise LeBlanc Fair Parole Hearing Act,” named for the victim in a murder case I prosecuted.
Marquise was an 18-year-old African American young man who was beaten, stabbed, and ultimately shot in the head after he unwittingly attended a birthday party in a gang-controlled neighborhood in Pomona.
A decade later, Jessica Corde, Marquise LeBlanc’s mother, became one of the first victims of George Gascon’s parole policy. One of Marquise’s killers came up for parole soon after Gascon took office. The CDCR did not have any current information for Ms. Corde. She received notice from the District’s Attorney’s Office based on a practice that is no longer allowed.
Ms. Corde was blindsided by how quickly one of her son’s killers came up for parole. The killer had served little more than 11 years of a 15-life sentence. Ms. Corde did her best to prepare for the hearing, including getting her hands on police reports and photographs of her deceased son lying in the street – something she had previously avoided but felt compelled to do in her quest for justice.
Gascon’s empty promise of “trauma-informed care” for victims left Jessica Corde needlessly retraumatized.
As for Assembly Bill 2409, after passing through the Public Safety Committee, the bill languished and died in the Appropriations committee.
Having served on the front lines of the justice system for 24 years, I know the importance of allowing victims and their next of kin the common decency of being notified about parole hearings. Any District Attorney or legislative body that values and prioritizes victims' rights should know it too.
If elected officials ignore or discard these rights, voters must seek leadership that rightly corrects this injustice.
John McKinney is a Deputy District Attorney for the County of Los Angeles. The views expressed in this op-ed are the opinions of John McKinney and do not reflect the views of the Office of the District Attorney.