If we care about safety in our communities, we must create services and conditions that ensure everyone has what they need to thrive.
LA County, the world’s largest jailer, is extracting people from their communities and allowing corporate interests and politicians to benefit mightily off the human suffering. As a microcosm of the entire country, Los Angeles County over-polices in poor communities, leading to the incarceration of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people at rates disportionate to local populations.
Research shows that the greater the police presence in a community, the greater the likelihood that residents will be ticketed and arrested. This means that offenses such as jaywalking, carrying an open container of alcohol, and driving with a broken tail light become regularly enforced — offenses that we know are largely ignored in wealthy white communities. As a result, low-income people and people of color are disproportionately populating our jails, serving time for non-violent misdemeanors or awaiting trial, causing them, their families and communities significant and often irreparable harm and loss.
In Los Angeles, these problems continue to escalate. Only recently the County Board of Supervisors signed a contract with McCarthy Building Companies to construct a massive “mental health” facility, a jail by another name. While the county decides when or if to move forward on this project, it is paying McCarthy a $7.7 million per month retainer. So even if the Board of Supervisors eventually cancels the project, this is money the county will never get back. Every month that the Board of Supervisors delays its final decision is another month it puts millions into the coffers of a mega-construction company with nothing to show in return.
In order to keep the prison-industrial complex thriving, we are sold the lie that incarceration keeps our communities safe. The perpetuation of this lie creates a punitive culture that upholds the “corrections and rehabilitation” myth: That doing time in prison makes one come out “better.” Yet for over a century, advocates of criminal justice reform have made a compelling case for fewer jails and more mental health rehabilitation facilities, critiquing the unchanging recidivism rates in LA County, and the failure of the “discipline and punish” method overall.
Justice LA, a coalition of grassroots organizations and people impacted by incarceration, has proven that having more mental health rehabilitation facilities is more cost effective for the county, a fact backed by leading mental health experts as well as those directing the county’s Health departments.
Further evidence shows that community-based, decentralized services are more effective at achieving public safety outcomes by helping affected, marginalized populations receive the services that they need, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, case management, job training, education and housing. These services help to address the root causes of social, economic and health problems that are typically criminalized. If those in need of support receive these services in their communities, they are more likely to succeed, while staying connected to family and local community support networks.
Despite this evidence, constituent push back, and recommendations from the County’s own Alternatives to Incarceration report, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors have signed the contract with McCarthy to build a 3,800-bed mental health jail (instead of a non-custodial mental health facility) in downtown LA.
According to the Alternatives to Incarceration report:
“In the aggregate, the goals and recommendations in this report . . . describe a transformational shift to a system of alternatives to incarceration that, in the final analysis, possesses the following characteristics:
- Care first
- Integrated and networked
- Needs and strengths-based, rather than “risk-assessed”
- Public health — prevention-and-supports-driven and,
- “Decentralized” — as a system of care; the members of the ATI envision a system with a countywide network of “restorative villages” and restorative centers — and fewer jail beds.”
McCarthy already has built a prison masquerading as a “mental health facility” in Stockton, and it was an immediate failure — within six years state inspectors called it “inadequate.” Further, the “mental health” jail slated for Downtown would cost at least $2 billion to build, while cancelling the McCarthy contract would free up nearly a billion dollars to support other county services with proven track records. Imagine what the county could do with hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to addressing housing and supportive services, for mental health and addiction, instead of jail beds?
The continuation of the jail plan appears to be driven, in part, by elected officials’ fear of opposition from “NIMBY-ism” (Not In My Back Yard) residents, who characteristically resist the development of community-based support services in their own, predominantly white neighborhoods. Also, a common refrain for some white people is that policing, jails, and prisons are synonymous with public safety. Yet there are tens of thousands of white constituents in this county who are vocal in support of decentralized services and a divestment from more jails. We want our tax dollars used to make our communities whole. That, we believe, is public safety, and where it starts. We must not be naive to the fact that our country’s jail system is driven by capitalism: the more jail beds created, the more effort is put into filling them. We must ask ourselves why the county never runs out of jail beds, yet there are shortages of beds in shelters, substance abuse treatment centers, and mental health facilities. As a county, if we care about safety in our communities, we must create services and conditions that ensure everyone has what they need to thrive. It is time to stop investing in the problem, and reimagine public safety. Alternatives do exist.
Residents of Los Angeles will have the opportunity to weigh in on this important and costly decision, especially since the Reform LA Jails initiative will appear on the ballot next year. White People for Black Lives supports a PAUSE on this contract. Sign the letter demanding an end to the McCarthy Contract, and follow organizing efforts at @reformlajails @justicelanow. Join an action against the McCarthy contract on August 8, 9AM at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration 500 West Temple St, Los Angeles. #cancelmccarthycontract
This article is written by White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL). WP4BL is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice. WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles. Visit www.awarela.org and follow us @wp4bl