Youth & Transformative Justice

LA County’s Justice Revolution

August 22, 2019
By Shirley Vilca

There’s a justice revolution happening in Los Angeles County.

This week, the Board of Supervisors took an unprecedented set of actions to shift away from punishment in large prison-like settings and toward a decentralized community safety strategy focused on expanded neighborhood health services and effective alternatives to lockups.

Supervisors canceled a $1.7 billion contract to build a mental health jail in downtown Los Angeles, empowered health leaders to envision a new decentralized mental health services network, and approved a feasibility study to explore shifting control of the juvenile justice system from law enforcement to another agency, better positioned to address a health focused, system of care for kids.

The lead-up to this remarkable moment was many years in the making and set a new bar for participatory democracy in Los Angeles County. It’s worth reflecting on how this happened, and more importantly, how these decisions translate into lasting change and impact.

For more than a decade, organizers and activists have fought against jail expansion, arguing for community-based alternatives to incarceration and highlighted the over incarceration of poor people of color. Youth and adults whose lives have been decimated by the justice system persisted in telling their stories and explaining why “you can’t get well in a cell.”

Their advocacy helped move the Board of Supervisors as they weighed the interconnected issues of homelessness, mental health, addiction, the mistreatment of incarcerated youth and community safety. A consensus was born around the importance of providing care as the first response and relying on incarceration as the last resort. Even the probation department and law enforcement agencies across LA are promoting prevention, diversion, and community-based alternatives to incarceration.

“We’re at a confluence that rarely happens, where an idea whose time has come is meeting leadership that agrees,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

This moment is worth celebrating, but not for long because there is still much for the board to navigate in this overhauling of the county’s justice system. We recommend that these guiding principles should light their way:

First, every policy and reform plan should represent a step forward for racial justice. This means engaging youth and adults personally impacted by the justice system in creating solutions and ensuring those solutions result in racial equity.

Second, decisions should be grounded in the emerging science and data about how to best respond to youth and adults who are experiencing the combination of social-emotional trauma, addiction and mental health conditions. A county study found 57% of people in county jails have serious physical and mental health problems and using incarceration as a mental health treatment strategy must end.

Third, supervisors must stay the course in investing in community-based settings as the best place to provide health care and connect people with housing and social services.

And finally, stating the obvious: those individuals sentenced to custody within a secure facility should be provided with a level of care that is humane, and under 21st Century conditions. The physical infrastructure of the main downtown jail is viewed, by many observers, as deplorable and unworkable.

As the celebrated author Toni Morrison said in offering guidance to leaders, “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”

We dream of a county jail population that is dramatically smaller because people are no longer locked up due to illness or because they are too poor to post bail.

We dream of the day when homeless people are no longer released from jail or police custody to resume their lives on the street, and instead are connected to housing and social services.

And we dream of a place where youth lockups have been closed and replaced by a youth development system that provides community-based support to young people so they can succeed, learn, and thrive.

These dreams are truly within reach in Los Angeles County, so let’s get to work.

Robert K. Ross, MD                                       Shane Goldsmith

President, California Endowment                   President, Liberty Hill Foundation

Dr. Ross Chairs the LA County Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup. Ms. Goldsmith is a member of the LAPD Commission.