Los Angeles County officials announced Monday that they have selected a judge to lead a “care first, jails last” initiative and implement a broad set of alternatives to incarceration.
Songhai Armstead, identified by the county CEO’s office as an innovator and longtime advocate for the underserved, will head the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative, coordinating among multiple departments and community activists and service providers. Armstead is scheduled to retire from the Superior Court bench to take her new post later this month.
Dr. Robert Ross, who chaired the ATI work group, hailed the choice.
“I am thrilled to learn of the hiring of Songhai Armstead to be our county’s inaugural ATI executive director,” said Ross, who is also president and CEO of the California Endowment. “Ms. Armstead brings the right blend of personal, career and justice reform experiences to lead our transformation efforts — to assert care as the first option and jail as the last resort in our system.”
Armstead was appointed to the Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 and is said to have been instrumental in creating innovative programs that assist justice-involved veterans, homeless people and those with mental health and substance abuse disorders — focusing on getting people the treatment and housing resources they need to improve their lives and break the cycle of incarceration.
She has trained the justices of the California Supreme Court and hundreds of others in the justice system on how powerful unseen biases shape actions and contribute to systemic racism.
A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, Armstead earned her law degree at the UCLA School of Law, where she was the first-ever Black woman to serve as student body president. As a child, she spent time in the foster care system and the now-shuttered MacLaren Hall Children’s Center.
“I am honored to be selected for this great opportunity. I have been shaped by my own life experiences — and even more by being able to serve and listen to those most impacted by trauma and the justice system,” Armstead said. “I look forward to bringing all of my energies to this important effort to create innovative alternatives for people who deserve to get well in the community, not in a jail cell.”
Others also applauded her appointment.
“Songhai is a great partner and advocate who rolls up her sleeves and really gets things done,” said Anita Nelson, CEO of SRO Housing Corporation, an affordable housing developer and supportive service provider. “In the 15 years that I’ve known her, she has walked skid row, met the people, learned the issues and is truly committed to housing as a cornerstone of a stable and secure life. The county is fortunate to have her in this leadership capacity.”
Armstead will need the support of many county departments to be effective in her new role. Dr. Jonathan Sherin, who leads the county’s mental health department, expressed his enthusiasm for working with her.
“People experiencing mental illness are far too often caught up in the criminal justice system. If we are going to break this cycle, we need visionary leaders like Songhai Armstead to help us find new pathways that recognize not just systemic racism but the need to overcome institutional barriers and truly meet our clients where they are,” Sherin said.
Public Defender Ricardo Garcia echoed that sentiment.
“Songhai Armstead has a deep understanding and compassion for the indigent accused and the wisdom to make real sustained change from a system of overincarceration to `care first, jails last.’ She is a true partner in our efforts to find treatment and services that help people thrive,” Garcia said.
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