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Get ready for fights over criminal justice reform

In the brand-new year ahead, get ready for some brand-new moves to change the nation’s criminal justice system as we know it. In some states, it’s already happening.

You’ll hear about several proposals in the coming months. Among them: Cut the U.S. prison population by more than half; close all private prisons; shutter all private immigration detention centers; eliminate cash bail for arrestees awaiting trial; cancel the death penalty; and stop judges from handing out mandatory minimum sentences. In addition, you’ll surely hear about reestablishing federal monitoring of police departments for civil rights violations and forbidding officers from using chokeholds or no-knock raids to round up those suspected of serious crimes. The incoming Biden administration has endorsed all these criminal justice reform proposals.

Some citizens will consider these fine ideas. Others will not. And therein lies the great debate ahead for all of us. Pages could be filled with the pros and cons on each of these suggestions.

The question, as I see it, is exactly how will some, or all, of these ideas be put into practice? Will there be thoughtful discussion of each proposal, or will they be hastily crammed down citizens’ throats by political fiat?

U.S. presidents have the power to simply issue an executive order or memorandum to put their desires into effect, provided the order is not out of step with either the Constitution or laws already on the books. Such a president’s decree carries the same weight as any law passed by Congress. Naturally, critics can — and do — challenge executive orders in court.

Case in point: President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13768, which withheld federal criminal justice funds from defiant “sanctuary jurisdictions” that refused to uphold U.S. immigration laws. That 2017 order faced several legal trials and has been see-sawing through the courts ever since. Trump’s bottom line was clear: Cities and states should not be allowed to ignore established laws.

Yet, currently, in Los Angeles, that is exactly what the union representing some 800 prosecutors claims is happening at the directive of the newly elected district attorney, George Gascon. The union filed a lawsuit.

California’s penal code has long instructed prosecutors to seek extra prison time for defendants who have a prior criminal record, those found in possession of a firearm or those with known gang ties. Other longstanding sentencing enhancements include defendants convicted of crimes against children or the elderly, or so-called hate crimes. Shortly after Gascon took office, he issued a directive instructing his vast team of prosecutors to lay off the extra enhancements.

The union’s lawsuit claims Gascon’s directive “placed line prosecutors in an ethical dilemma — follow the law, their oath, and their ethical obligations, or follow their superior’s orders.”

Gascon, a progressive who campaigned for a kinder criminal justice system, is fighting the lawsuit and says he is simply doing what the voters elected him to do. In response to the lawsuit, Gascon said, “Overincarceration — the practice of sending people to jails and prisons for too long — does not enhance safety.”

Gascon is not the only DA to take office and suddenly change the rules. The same thing has happened in Philadelphia, Portland, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and other cities.

Is this what we want? Should elected officials be allowed to ignore the laws they don’t like and order underlings to follow their lead? Seems like a gamble when it comes to public safety.

As these matters play out in lengthy and expensive court battles, all taxpayers can do is sit back, watch and realize that the only current winners are the lawyers.

What will happen, then, if President Joe Biden uses his executive power to sidestep debate and enact the progressive proposals listed above? There will surely be more divisiveness and more court fights.

Many in the criminal justice system think this scenario is a real possibility. They worry that police departments will be further crippled and judges will be forced to release dangerous defendants with no bail and the unrealistic hope that they will return for trial.

We have entered a phase of politics where leading by partisan edict is becoming more frequent. No debate of issues, just politicians who feel emboldened to ram through their ideas. Is this OK with you?

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