LA County has the largest jail system in the world. If you live in Los Angeles, it’s easy for that to feel like an intractable fact, like traffic on the 405 or the homeless crisis, the jail system can feel like an inescapable part of the geography of the county. We all know that the LA county sheriffs are corrupt and dangerous, we know that the jails are overcrowded, we know they’re not providing proper mental healthcare, we know they’re disproportionately punishing people of color, and yet year after year, election cycle after election cycle, we allow the jails to become steadily worse, a horrific stain on all of our communities. As much as Los Angeles tends to pride itself on good progressive values, our jails remain a beam in our eye that has become impossible to ignore any longer. With Measure R, we have an opportunity to demand something better, to collectively and explicitly say to our elected leaders that we as Angelenos want something better than this.
Measure R is the result of nearly a decade of relentless community organizing, led predominantly by system impacted women of color. For far too long, mothers whose sons were killed inside LA county jails have had to fight tooth and nail to get the county to admit to wrongful deaths at the hands of the sheriffs. In 2012, Patrisse Cullors (co-founder of Black Lives Matter) founded the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, which eventually lead to the creation of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission in 2016. When the Board of Supervisors failed to include subpoena power for the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Reform LA Jails coalition was formed to give the Commission the teeth it needed to operate effectively. In In 2018, the campaign collected and submitted nearly a quarter million signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Then, working with JusticeLA and other community groups in 2019 Reform LA Jails/Measure R was able to end the plan to build a new women’s jail hours outside of LA, and put a halt to the construction of a “mental health jail” by threatening the County with a law suit and gathering petition signatures to demonstrate to the LA County Board of Supervisors that Angelenos do not want jail expansion. The effort to hold law enforcement accountable to all Angelenos has been a long fought battle, and it won’t be over simply by passing this ballot measure, but it will undeniably be a crucial step forward.
I have been canvassing for this ballot measure since October, going door to door in predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods, the kinds of places where it’s impolite to even suggest that someone might know a person who has been incarcerated. With some gentle prodding, however, it’s remarkable how many people have a story of a cousin, a brother, or a close friend who has spent some time in jail or prison. Almost without fail, these people have stories of how the carceral system harmed their loved one and left them worse off than before they were incarcerated. The cycle of abuse perpetuated by our jails and prisons can be an almost impossible thing to face directly, realizing how much pain they cause not only the people physically incarcerated, but the families who lose their loved one in the process is almost too much to bear. Yes, real violence will always be a threat in the United States, but we currently use a violent system in order to punish nonviolent offenders. Rather than attempting to invest in our communities in such a way that people do not reach a crisis point where they may lash out in a violent manner, we continue to preemptively punish for nonviolent offenses. The result is that we massively over-correct and brutalize vulnerable human beings who fall into the intersections of poverty, mental illness, and racial discrimination. We are all impacted by mass incarceration, even if some of us have the privilege of not confronting it daily, but for the people who have been most directly harmed by our incarceration system, the time for substantial change is now.
Despite the deep pain and injustice caused in LA county jails every day, Measure R is a tempered and reasonable step in the right direction towards jail reform in LA county. The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission already exists, but it currently lacks subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and produce full evidence when investigating misconduct inside the jails. In July of last year alone, five inmates died while in custody, the public deserves clear and unadulterated access to what is going on inside the jails to discover why so many unnecessary deaths are occuring. In addition, Measure R will also require the Civilian Oversight Commission to conduct a Comprehensive Public Safety Reinvestment Plan and Feasibility Study to develop a jail reduction plan within 7 months. Decades of using jails as a catch-all to fight mental illness and substance abuse has obviously been a failure, 90% of the people incarcerated in LA county eventually end up back in jail. A study presenting clear alternatives to incarceration will allow us as Angelenos to begin to imagine better ways to treat our neighbors who are struggling, while also presenting more cost-effective strategies to deal with major public health problems. A recent study by RAND found that 61% of mentally ill inmates currently held in LA county jails would qualify for diversion to community services and supportive housing. With even more evidence, it will be impossible to deny the need for a multi-faceted approach to community health over incarceration.
This is a strong step in the right direction, but it is not a radical attempt to toss everyone out of jail and on to the streets on March 4th. Even the most staunch law and order voters should be able to agree that sheriff accountability and using a diversity of approaches to decrease our jail population and stabilize our communities makes sense. The opportunity to choose real healing and care is available to us if we choose to take it, let’s do the right thing on March 3rd.