Since the 1970s, in an era now known as the Age of Mass Incarceration, Los Angeles County has operated the largest jail system in the nation. This jail system has drained public resources from the county and exacerbated its deep legacies of racial injustice as the harms of incarceration – fines, fees, toxic stress, family separation, lost work and school days, suppressed wages, increased exposure to infection, and more – disproportionately impact the County’s Black and Brown residents. But over the last year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and voters have approved strategies to end LA’s age of mass incarceration.
In March 2020, the Board voted to accept the report of the Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup, a county-appointed body of some two dozen individuals – roughly half of whom were county agency heads and the remaining half were community leaders experienced in fighting for a re-imagined justice system.
County Supervisors asked for a roadmap in the pursuit of a “Care as the first option, and jail as the last resort.” The report listed more than 100 recommendations and prioritized 26 as “foundational” recommendations for early action. Recommendations are methodically grouped in data-supported “intercept points” where access to the proper services can divert individuals from the voracious jail and prison pipeline.
The Board’s unanimous vote to receive the ATI report, move the foundational recommendations forward, and create a new “ATI” (Alternatives to Incarceration) office was a major step toward de-carcerating LA. The second step was the Board’s decision to plan for the closure of the Men’s Central Jail near downtown Los Angeles and replace it with a system of services and care for the persons, families, and communities most harmed by decades of racist-infused mass incarceration. Thirdly, County voters decisively agreed to support Measure J, which promises to dedicate a portion of the county general fund to services and care for the population. That also will help reduce homelessness.
This trifecta of decisions lay the groundwork for a de-carceration process that is in support of community safety for all. Imagine just five years from now when Men’s Central Jail is replaced by a human-centered “restorative village, providing mental health services, employment, and housing for our community. The vision is within reach. We just need implement what the county Supervisors have called for, shifting our public resources from criminalization to care, while opening an unprecedented era of racial justice.
However, the resistance to this aspirational vision – closing jails and jail beds and replacing them with a system of services, opportunity, and hope – won’t go quietly. It will require political courage and civic conviction to make historic change. It’s the right thing to do as fiscal stewards of public tax dollars and racial justice advocates. Right now Supervisors, department heads, and community advocates will need to confront three dragons:
The Budget: While providing effective community-based services is always cheaper than incarceration – developing such a system of care won’t be cheap. Court diversion programs, mental health and substance abused treatment services, and transitional and supportive housing will be costly. With state and county budgets strained by COVID-19, elected officials must be fearless and inventive to invest in this new system. Suggestion: as county leaders were once prepared to bond-finance a new jail to replace MCJ, perhaps we should shift our sights into bond-financing the infrastructure required for this new system of care.
The Narrative: A cadre of prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office launched a rebellion against justice system reformer George Gascon, labeling reforms “unconstitutional” and threats to public safety. This outdated and disproven narrative claims that the only way to assure public safety is to lock people up. Expect the lock’em up culture – which drove the rise of mass incarceration – to re-assert itself. Suggestion: elevate the voices of those most impacted by hyper-incarceration – the currently and formerly incarcerated as well as their families and communities. Trust what they say, and hold their experiences close as decisions are being made.
Race: Data on racial inequality and the legacy of structural racism that is foundational to hyper-incarceration of Black and Brown men and women are legion. Moreover, the stories of so many African American families negatively impacted by the justice system animate the data and research, making the numbers more compelling. Meaningful transformation of the system will not occur unless racial inequality and disparities are confronted.
The supervisors deserve credit for creating a new Office of Racial Equity to keep “the matter of race” on the front burner as reforms and transformation unfold. Suggestion: Support this office by inaugurating its work through the lens of ATI, Measure J, and MCJ developments. LA County can emerge as the nation’s leader in advancing anti-racist strategies, policies, and programs.
Political and civic courage has put Los Angeles County on the national map about what a transformed “care first, jails last” system can look like. Trust the voices of the most impacted to illuminate the path.
Dr. Robert K Ross is the President/CEO of The California Endowment, the largest health foundation in the state. He is a medical doctor and former public health director of San Diego County. He served on Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration taskforce.
Kelly Lytle Hernandez is a professor of History, African American Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA where she holds The Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History and is the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. She is also known as one of the nation’s leading experts on race, immigration, and mass incarceration. Professor Hernandez served on Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration taskforce.