A coalition of grassroots organizations fighting for changes to the criminal justice system presented their proposal Wednesday for a “Care First Budget” for Los Angeles County that would shift money from law enforcement to communities in need.

The “Care First Budget: LA County Reimagined,” is a 38-page proposal the coalition describes as a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Many of the organizations that have joined JusticeLA have been successful in shifting the county Board of Supervisor’s attitudes about criminal justice. Their efforts helped lead 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, through work on a task force considering alternatives to incarceration.

Now they are asking the Board of Supervisors to take four key steps:

— continue to reduce the jail population below 12,000 people through pretrial release, more diversion and reducing police contact in black communities;

— end juvenile detention and invest in other resources for young Angelenos;

— capture cost savings from reducing jail populations, closing Men’s Central Jail and disinvesting in law enforcement in order to fund more effective community outreach and intervention; and

— implement the findings of the Alternatives to Incarceration report, which received support in principle from the board in March, including setting aside money to fund the recommendations and hire a director.

JusticeLA said the L.A. County budget should be a reflection of the values of its residents.

“When choosing where to allocate resources, the question invariably becomes: who and what do we value most? Is it our kids, is it food security, housing, medical and mental health care, specifically for Black and vulnerable communities?” asked Brian Kaneda, the L.A. coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “Or are we just going to dump billions of dollars into failing institutions like jails and policing that don’t make our communities any safer and actually those among us who are hurting the most?”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva complained Tuesday to the board that people who are involved in the justice system themselves 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 representatives said there is widespread support for their ideas across all demographics, based on the preliminary results of a survey that has reached 5,000 people so far and will continue through the summer.

They said 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 coronavirus pandemic and points to another $1 billion available in coronavirus relief funds. They note that the same vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by both COVID-19 and the policing and jail system.

Some of the county’s coronavirus relief dollars have already been dedicated to other uses, and the board and Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai have indicated they will be forced to draw down on reserves like the Rainy Day Fund to close the budget gap. However, the board has indicated a willingness to spend on the “Care First, Jails Last” model outlined in a March report on Alternatives to Incarceration.

JusticeLA representatives say it is time to set that money aside now, pointing to cost savings that can be generated by closing Men’s Central Jail and ending other jail capital projects. On Tuesday, Supervisor Hilda Solis previewed a motion calling for the closure of Men’s Central within one year. The board also voted on Tuesday to look at reallocating AB109 state funds from custody operations to crisis and mental health response teams, in line with JusticeLA’s proposition to pull funds away from the Sheriff’s Department.

The group is calling for just over $1 billion to be divested 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.

However, Villanueva has previously warned that his budget is already $400 million short and will force him to make critical cuts that will affect public safety, like closing patrol stations.

For those who worry that defunding the police means no one would be available to answer calls for help, JusticeLA argued that the bulk of most patrol deputies’ time is spent responding to non-violent situations — a homeless person camped out in someone’s driveway, a car break-in or loud neighbors — that don’t require an armed response, but mental health resources or investigators to sort out what happened.

“A lot of it has to do with people’s imagination regarding the role of police versus the actual reality,” Kaneda said.

Re-envisioning juvenile detention also makes sense, advocates say, arguing that it costs $578,621 per year to keep a single teen in a county juvenile hall.

“Thinking about what we’re really investing in for our youth. Investing that much money … can be better spent providing housing for their families, providing their families with resources, with health care,” said Ivette Ale, senior policy lead for Dignity & Power Now.

The county’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.

“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.

JusticeLA hopes that the ATI report and Care First Budget can be a model for other jurisdictions across the country.

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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