Los Angeles County voters have handily approved a ballot measure that requires the county to dedicate at least 10% of its unrestricted funds to youth development and other community investments as well as alternatives to incarceration rather than law enforcement and jail.
Measure J was strategically marketed as “Reimagine Los Angeles County” by proponents and shaded by critics as a dangerous and ill-considered step toward “defunding” law enforcement. Its strong approval means that the county must begin to pour hundreds of millions of new dollars a year into such programming, unless the county Board of Supervisors votes at least 4-1 to override the requirement to deal with a declared fiscal emergency.
Measure J grew out of the nationwide paroxysm of protest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, which spawned a movement to defund police departments.
The voters’ approval of moving toward a community investment-based approach to public safety marks perhaps the nation’s most significant win in efforts to de-emphasize spending on traditional law and order, which is widely seen as rife with structural racism. The population of diverse Los Angeles County is larger than that of all but a handful of states.
The county charter amendment would go into effect next July 1 and fully phase in by the end of June 2024.
Although Los Angeles County Sheriff Alejandro Villanueva and others in law enforcement vehemently and financially opposed the measure, the sheriff said on Wednesday that he stands ready to work with the county to “find budgetary solutions to the many complex issues we now face.”
“We do not yet understand the depth of the real-world consequences to the department, but we do know it will mean additional reductions to our budget,” Villanueva said, according to NBC Los Angeles. “Over the next few weeks, our budget team will find out what the impact will actually be.”
Perhaps the handwriting was on the wall when voters began to consider Measure J. In August, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, county supervisors pulled the plug on a contract to build a $2.2 billion jail, and the city of Los Angeles cut $150 million from the city police budget.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl (D) told NBC News Los Angeles on Wednesday that voters clearly signaled that “now is the time to expand funding so that we can help more people move from custody, homelessness, and instability to long-term stability and care.”
The measure does not say that the new money must come from law enforcement budgets, but officials agree that’s almost certainly what will happen. None of the new money can be used for law enforcement.
When fully phased in, the county will typically allocate a 10th of its discretionary local budget (which is almost $9 billion this year) to programs and services that fall into two broad categories.
The first is direct community investment, which includes youth development, affordable housing, job training and strengthening minority-owned businesses. The second bucket of money will go toward alternatives to incarceration. These include restorative justice programs, treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse, and services to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition smoothly into the larger community.