Los Angeles Weighs Ballot Proposal to Fund Alternatives to Incarceration

Andres Zuniga from the Center for Living and Learning celebrates the L.A. County Board of Supervisors’ decision to create a new county office to support alternatives to incarceration at its meeting on March 10, 2020. Now the board is discussing a ballot proposal in November that would set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for the effort. Photo courtesy of the office of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

As communities across the U.S. grapple with how to divert money from law enforcement agencies to correct for long-standing racial injustice, Los Angeles County supervisors think the voters should decide.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to advance a proposal headed for the November ballot that would direct as much as $800 million “to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice through community investment and alternatives to incarceration.” 

If approved by a majority of voters in the election in November, the Reimagine L.A. initiative would steer at least 10% of the unrestricted revenue in the county’s general fund each year toward the justice goals. Roughly one-quarter of the county’s nearly $35 billion budget includes unrestricted funds.

The ballot measure would earmark funds to be spent on community-run youth development programs, housing assistance and affordable housing investments that offer buffers against incarceration for youth and adults, as well as diversionary programs in lieu of incarceration. The funds could not be used for law enforcement agencies or detention facilities.

“This is a moment in time when people are saying to us, ‘Why is every solution wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon?’” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl at Tuesday’s board meeting that elicited thousands of written comments and an hour’s worth of public comment by phone, with many more unable to speak because of time constraints.

The supervisors voted 4-1 to move the plan forward, with another round of discussions to be held next week, when the plan could be finalized.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger cast the lone dissenting vote against the Reimagine L.A. proposal, saying she felt the effort was “rushed” and possibly illegal. Barger said the board has already begun to address some of the issues the ballot measure calls for, and she described  holding discussions during regular board meetings as a better way to provide “intentionality and accountability.”

“We have been elected to make these tough decisions and not delegate elsewhere,” Barger said.

Tuesday’s meeting was held a day after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the creation of a new community policing bureau at the Los Angeles Police Department. The department was stripped of $150 million in June by the City Council. 

But many advocates want to see the county move in a different direction. Declaring that the ballot measure would be “a step toward real change,” Phal Sok of the Youth Justice Coalition said that a youth center or a summer job might have prevented his slide into the criminal justice system as a teen.

“Cops, handcuffs, cages — they didn’t stop anyone from doing things that are hurtful,” Sok said. “If they did, we wouldn’t have the largest cage in the world.”

Other public speakers, including many members of unions representing law enforcement officers, questioned whether the redistribution of public funds would hurt the county workforce.

At the meeting, County Counsel Mary Wickham confirmed that possibility, saying that if county finances remain the same, between 700 and 1,000 jobs could be lost. 

Ballot-box budgeting is nothing more than a complete abdication of your elected responsibility as fiduciaries,” said Tab Rhodes, president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association.

Under the terms of the ballot proposal, the budget restructuring wouldn’t be fully phased in until June 30, 2024. And in cases of an emergency, the five-member board that oversees 10 million residents could override the arrangement with four votes.

Many proponents of Reimagine L.A. see the ballot proposal as the only way to better fund reforms previously called for by a county working group focused on alternatives to incarceration. Before the pandemic shut down the state in March, the group presented county supervisors with 114 recommendations to help vulnerable residents avoid incarceration, including diversion and reentry programs, as well as services preventing homelessness and better access to health care. The board voted to create an office dedicated to providing alternatives to incarceration.

Last month, supervisors cited the work done by the work group in their decision to close Men’s Central Jail and expand mental health services and restorative justice approaches in its stead. 

With that recent history, Isaac Bryan of the UCLA Black Policy Project said the ballot proposal is neither symbolic nor a political gesture, but rather, a long overdue move toward justice and equality.

“We really need to move beyond the systems of harm that have exacerbated inequality in our county for decades,” Bryan said.

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

National nonprofit @PSYyouth is staffing up to extend its reach on preventing youth #homelessness https://bit.ly/2DzJ8Od

OPINION: Residential care leaders say its time to root out the bad actors in #childwelfare https://bit.ly/3gFJK3z