A coalition of grassroots organizations fighting for changes to the criminal justice system will present their proposal Wednesday for a “Care First Budget” for Los Angeles County that shifts money from law enforcement to communities in need.
JusticeLA has scheduled a virtual news conference to introduce “Care First Budget: LA County Reimagined,” a 38-page proposal the coalition describes as a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Many of the organizations which have joined JusticeLA have been successful in shifting the county Board of Supervisor’s attitudes about criminal justice. Their efforts led to the cancellation of contracts to build a women’s jail in Lancaster and a large mental health treatment jail downtown. Some of the organizers have provided significant input on county initiatives, such as the Office of Diversion and Reentry.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva complained Tuesday to the board that justice-involved individuals have carried too much influence in helping to craft recommendations about alternatives to incarceration, which the board refers to as a “Care First, Jails Last” model.
“Those who are justice-involved and their supporters, they are definitely stakeholders in (the criminal justice system), but they’re not the owners of it. It’s the entire community that owns the criminal justice system,” Villanueva said.
“That means the people that are honest, law-abiding, that never, ever have the need to see law enforcement, they are stakeholders … the same thing as victims of crime, whose voices are often overlooked … Their voices need to be heard.”
JusticeLA says the Care First Budget builds on the county’s “historic trajectory toward a public health approach to public safety, rather than a reliance on incarceration and policing.” It offers suggestions for spending on housing, health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment at the expense of policing, prosecution, jails and probation.
The bid to shape the county’s spending comes when it is under financial pressure and projecting a two fiscal year budget gap of $2.5 billion through June 30, 2021.
The county’s “Rainy Day Fund” is one source of funds cited in the JusticeLA proposal to increase spending on community-based programs. The coalition puts the total at $1.1 billion just prior to the pandemic and points to another $1 billion available in coronavirus relief funds.
Closing Men’s Central Jail and ending other jail capital projects should provide more money, as well pulling funds away from the Sheriff’s Department, Probation Department and District Attorney’s Office, the group says.
Some of the county’s coronavirus relief dollars have been dedicated to specific programs, and the board and Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai have indicated they will have to draw down on reserves to close the budget gap. However, the county has indicated a willingness to spend on the “Care First, Jails Last” model outlined in a March report on Alternatives to Incarceration.
Hamai’s proposed 2020-21 budget is in the process of being revised, likely dramatically. The board is expected to hold further deliberations Monday and adopt a budget — still subject to changes — by the following day.
That budget needs to better align with the needs of county residents, according to JusticeLA.
“The budget that L.A. County creates over the next two weeks will determine who lives and who dies. Protecting our residents in this moment requires us to address the three-pronged crisis of COVID-19, economic and racial inequality and incarceration,” said Eunisses Hernandez, co-executive director of La Defensa.
The group is calling for just over $1 billion to be pulled from the Sheriff Department’s roughly $3.5 billion budget. Some of that money would be saved by simply by keeping jail populations low post-pandemic, Justice LA argues. The group also seeks to divert money to crisis and mental health response teams to respond to incidents that might otherwise be handled by sheriff’s deputies, something the Board of Supervisors separately voted in favor of Tuesday.
However, Villanueva has warned that his budget is already $400 million short and will force him to make critical cuts.
“The public needs to be able to see every single county department … so they can make a decision for themselves … how the Board of Supervisors is representing their priorities,” he said in May.
Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of the Frontline Wellness Network, said it is time for a change.
“For decades, L.A. County has led the world in policing and incarceration — the planet’s largest sheriff’s department, probation department, jail, juvenile and court systems and the largest suppression budget to match,” Clayton-Johnson said.
“Now communities are united to demand spending that prioritizes a humane vision for care over cages.”
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