LA County Board of Supervisors
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Photo by John Schreiber.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to establish a “blue ribbon” commission on public safety to review how the county implements state laws that allow early parole, reduce criminal sentences and shift responsibility for supervision of non-violent offenders to counties.

The board’s vote was 3-0, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining after urging that the matter be postponed and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on a planned trip out of the country.

Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn co-authored the motion to create a commission made up of board appointees, law enforcement officials and representatives from county departments handling mental health and diversion programs, among others.

The aim is “to improve rehabilitation, improve public safety, including for the brave men and women of law enforcement,” Barger said, adding that it is “not a referendum on criminal justice efforts” but a hard look at probation policies and how to protect people.

Barger and Hahn said creating the commission builds on their earlier demand for an investigation into the fatal shooting of Whittier police Officer Keith Boyer and the criminal history of his alleged killer, reputed gang member Michael Christopher Mejia, who was on probation at the time.

Mejia was released from state prison in April 2016 on a grand-theft auto conviction and arrested several times after that. He was released from county jail less than two weeks before allegedly gunning down his cousin, then Boyer.

The report on Mejia’s probation record requested by Hahn and Barger has been kept confidential and not even released to the Whittier Police Department, according to Hahn.

“I think the public has a right to see these findings,” Hahn said. “We should not be afraid of the truth or transparency.”

Probation Chief Terri McDonald told the board the report couldn’t be released given the pending criminal proceedings.

Speakers opposed to creating the public safety commission raised concerns about the link to Boyer’s killing and the disproportionate number of law enforcement representatives.

“How can we expect this commission to come out with an unbiased set of recommendations?” asked Jose Osuna of Homeboy Industries, which he characterized as the “world’s largest gang rehabilitation center.” He called the proposal “flawed and reactionary.”

But many city officials, police chiefs, prosecutors and community members pointed to Boyer’s death as evidence that changes must be made.

“This felon should not have been on the street and should have been behind bars for our safety. Instead, two people are dead,” said Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri, adding that “violent attacks against our law enforcement officers … (are a) call to action.’

Vinatieri was one of several city officials who referenced double- digit increases in crime” and said there’s little to stop criminals from committing new offenses.

“We used to say crime doesn’t pay, but we can’t say that anymore,” said Bea Dieringer of the League of California Cities and a longtime prosecutor.

“I am a big believer in rehabilitation .. but … we cannot rehabilitate somebody who does not want to be rehabilitated,” Dieringer told the board.

Barger mentioned individuals who had been re-arrested “15, 20 and 25 times” and even one who was picked up 69 times.

Both opponents and supporters of the motion claimed to have the best interests of the public and crime victims at heart.

Calling the commission a “common-sense notion to improve the criminal justice system,” Los Angeles Police Protective League President Craig Lally told the board, “Criminal justice reform cannot just be focused on the offenders. Victims must have a say.”

However, Emi MacLean, an attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, cited a national survey published in May by David Binder Research finding that “a majority of crime victims actually oppose this tough- on-crime agenda” and strongly favor rehabilitation over punishment.

Despite the supervisors’ disclaimers about a referendum on state policies, Sheriff Jim McDonnell pointed to potential “unintended consequences” of recent legislative changes “placing our first responders and members of the public at risk … It’s not about politics, but about public safety.”

Others said using Mejia as an example of problems with criminal justice reforms under AB 109 and propositions 47 and 57 amounted to faulty logic.

“None of these measures had a direct impact on his release or his reprehensible conduct,” said Diana Zuniga of Californians United for A Responsible Budget, a coalition of grassroots organizations working to reduce the number of people behind bars.

Citing reports by state corrections officials, Zuniga said that in addition to serving his full sentence, Mejia was released before Prop 57 took effect and his conviction was not in the category affected by AB 109.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she had some hesitations about the commission, but ultimately added her vote to allow the motion to pass.

She first amended the proposal to add five additional board appointees who are advocates of reform, calling the first pass “deeply unbalanced.”

“This new commission will now be an open forum that is inclusive of different voices, a safe space where law enforcement and the community can equally discuss best practices, strategies and opportunities to address recidivism,” Solis said in a statement released after the vote.

At least seven representatives of the 27-member commission will be representatives from law enforcement agencies including the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles Police Department, Probation Department and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, among others. There will also be at least three representatives from public defender agencies.

The commission is expected to review the categories of violent crime that are eligible for parole and look at policies that allow probation to be revoked. It will also be tasked with tracking “very high risk” probationers, misdemeanor offenders with the highest recidivism rates and the rate of re- offense for everyone released under propositions 57 and 47 and AB 109.

A time frame for appointments to the commission was not specified.

–City News Service

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