In just a few days, Los Angeles County residents will vote on Measure R, a ballot measure aimed at ensuring accountability for misconduct by the county sheriff’s department, addressing the substandard care provided to mentally ill incarcerated people, and finding alternatives to jail, especially for vulnerable populations. But regardless of the outcome of the vote, plenty of work remains in the fight to end mass incarceration and push the jail reform movement forward. Activists hope community members will be inspired by the rallying effort behind Measure R and are anticipating a new wave of momentum after the vote.
“What’s so unique about this moment is that this is the first time in history that citizens have brought a ballot measure to LA County around criminal justice reform,” said Lynne Lyman, a justice advocate and campaign strategist for Measure R. “It’s really an opportunity for the people to take back power. There are a lot of ways to get involved in this space. It just depends on how people want to engage.”
Below is a list of ways you can make a difference in the jail reform movement, beyond the first step of voting Yes on R and encouraging others to do the same. Although these particular recommendations are targeted at people living in LA County, similar programs can be found across the country.
Get educated about criminal justice ballot measures slated for November
Come November, there will be two major criminal justice initiatives on the ballot that could have major impacts on California’s crime laws. The first is a veto referendum that would overturn Senate Bill 10 (SB10), a law passed in 2018 that would abolish cash bail in California and replace it with a risk-assessment-based bail system. SB10 drew criticism from many quarters, including the ACLU, which warned that replacing cash bail with risk assessments would “create significant new risks and problems,” as SB10 would not “guarantee a substantial reduction in the number of Californians detained while awaiting trial, nor does it sufficiently address racial bias in pretrial decision making.” Separately, the bail bond industry also challenged implementation of the law. If successful, November’s veto referendum vote would prevent SB10 from going into effect.
The second criminal justice measure up for a vote in November is the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act, which, if approved by voters, would roll back key reforms made in California between 2011 and 2016 that began steering the state away from a “tough-on-crime” approach to justice. The measure seeks to expand the list of violent crimes for which early release from incarceration isn’t an option, allow prosecutors to charge certain theft and fraud crimes as either misdemeanors or felonies, and require people convicted of certain crimes to submit to the collection of DNA samples. Several law enforcement groups are backing the measure, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Critics have been vocal about the negative impact the measure would have on criminal justice reform in the state. “Read the fine print. This flawed initiative would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and endanger public safety by restricting parole and undermining inmate rehabilitation,” said former California Gov. Jerry Brown in a tweet last year after the initiative qualified for the 2020 ballot.
Try to get on the Civilian Oversight Commission
In 2016, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to appoint members to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC). Becoming part of the panel is just one way community members can work to hold county sheriffs accountable and have a voice in the discussion of jail reform. The commission works toward transparency and accountability by reviewing the policies, practices, and procedures of the LA County Sheriff’s Department—the country’s largest sheriff’s department.
“The county has a large number of venues where the community can directly engage with the work of criminal justice reform,” said LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “For the Sheriff’s Department, the Civilian Oversight Commission provides a venue for the community to meaningfully engage in the work of reforming the department it oversees. The COC has dealt with a range of issues raised by the community, including the treatment of families whose loved ones are killed in an incident involving the department, secret societies, racial profiling in policing, and implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, among others.”
The panel consists of nine members from a range of ethnic and professional backgrounds, four of whom were recommended by community-affiliated groups. The panel holds a public meeting once a month.
Participate in and fight for community-based mental health programs
Several organizations have proposed creating programs within each district that would provide assistance to the mentally ill and treat drug addictions, rather than building more jails. Justice reform advocates say investing in community-based mental health programs is proven to be significantly more effective than putting people in jail.
The county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR), a department within the LA County Department of Health Services, strives to redirect inmates with severe mental illness from the criminal justice system. Since 2015, ODR has diverted thousands of people into community programs. In a three-year period, the housing stability rate of those who participated in the program for one year was 74%. The program is also dramatically more cost-effective than keeping people in jail. ODR estimates that on a daily basis, the state spends $600 per person for incarceration—community programs cost just $70 per person.
“Thousands of individuals are now living in stable housing and receiving treatment instead of the costly alternative of serving additional time in jail and being released with no support, too often ending up homeless,” said Ridley-Thomas.
To get involved, throw your support behind efforts and initiatives that push for the creation of community-based programs for formerly incarcerated citizens. To fight for additional programs, you can reach out to individual members of the LA County Board of Supervisors or start your own petition.
Participate in city-sponsored programs
After people are released from prison, many are unaware that their right to vote may have been restored. Thanks to the passage in the California State Assembly of AB 2466 in 2016, anyone with a felony conviction who is not currently in prison or on parole is permitted to vote. LA Free the Vote was created to promote civic engagement, help people with prior felony convictions get registered to vote, and educate them about their rights. The Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder has a Deputy Voter Registrar Training Program for people in the community who want to help register people to vote. For more information, contact the office and learn how to become a deputy registrar.
Apart from voter registration, LA County has other ways to stay in the loop. The Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group, which was started last year by the LA County Board of Supervisors, brings together leaders in health and justice to discuss the implementation of new plans to send fewer people to jail. People in the group aim to use incarceration as a last resort and seek alternative treatment and facilities for people already behind bars. There are 25 voting members in the Work Group, but ad hoc committees are open to the public. To join the group’s distribution list and learn how to weigh in on the subject, fill out a form on its website.
Connect with local organizations
There are many impactful organizations in the Los Angeles jail reform space that would benefit from additional assistance. First, figure out which organizations fit the area you’re most interested in—anti-recidivism, mental health, police violence, or another category.
The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, for example, works to create social change for people imprisoned in Los Angeles and helps incarcerated people transition back into society once they’re released. It regularly provides advocacy training for members to keep people up to date on the landscape of the justice system, and provides tools for people to use their own experience to advocate for change. To get involved, people can apply to the mentorship program, become a member, or volunteer.
If you’re looking for a more hands-on approach, the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership is a great organization to partner with and join. The organization is an alliance of more than 15 direct-service organizations serving formerly incarcerated people in the community. LARRP is also looking for volunteers to do voter registration at the local county jails, help with mailings, and attend reentry fairs. To sign up, potential volunteers can follow the instructions on LARRP’s website homepage.
Dignity and Power Now focuses primarily on the healing side of incarceration. The organization works with families and communities in trauma after incidents involving police or state violence. Check out their online calendar to attend one of their upcoming events.
Pushing for jail reform isn’t a fight solely carried on by formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones. Anyone who believes people deserve to have a genuine chance at redemption or deserve to be treated with dignity while behind bars is capable of taking small steps to help create a more fair and equal justice system for all.
Carolyn Copeland is a copy editor and staff reporter for Prism. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.
Read more of Prism’s series on the movement to reform Los Angeles County jails here, and follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook for more reporting on criminal justice and grassroots work toward reform. Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places, and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling.
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