L.A. County presented with ambitious plan to change its justice system to system of care

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Special to CalMatters

On any given night, more than 17,000 people are confined in the jail system of Los Angeles County. More than 5,000 of the jail’s residents have severe mental health needs, trapping too many of them in a cycle of incarceration, houselessness and social instability. 

Black people make up 29% of the jail population, more than three times their population in the county overall. Black women make up just 8% of the county’s female population, but they constitute more than 33% of the jail’s female population.  Three quarters of the county’s female jail population is either black or Latinx.

         This state of affairs shocks the conscience, but it will not surprise a student of the history of race, health and incarceration in California and the United States at large. From their origins following the U.S.-Mexican War to their role in the War on Drugs, Los Angeles’s jails have guarded racial hierarchy and kept labor under a harsh watch, used to discipline Native, immigrant and black populations over centuries.  

What may come as a surprise are the efforts of county officials to work with community organizers and experts to recognize that history and change it. For more than a decade community organizations have pushed the county to reimagine its role in human caging. 

A report, “Care First, Jail Last,” presented to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this month, lays out a roadmap to remove many people from incarceration to safe care in their communities and to ensure that many others may avoid coming in contact with it. The report, if implemented fully, puts L.A. County on the threshold of some of the most ambitious justice system changes in the country.

         It cannot come too soon.  The costs of mass incarceration have been borne by the public. California state authorities have increased criminal justice spending by $600 billion above 1982 levels, and the repercussions of jail and prison stays are felt in lost jobs, fractured families, generational trauma, legal fees, disenfranchisement, diminished educational outcomes and a greater likelihood of houselessness.

         Those communities now stand to gain as county leaders take up the recommendations compiled over the past year by the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group. Its yearlong inquiry drew input from more than 1,000 people, many of whom had experienced incarceration personally or through their family; four of its working sessions were held in jails, and seven others were held in communities disproportionately affected by incarceration.

Against a history that is centuries old, the effort to turn this system from jail to care might look unlikely. But it has a contemporary history of its own. Investments by the county supervisors have begun to establish “care first, jail last” as a policy priority with proven initiatives across multiple departments, including the establishment of the Office of Diversion and Reentry by the supervisors in 2015, which oversees multiple programs that have successfully demonstrated how health and justice efforts can align. 

The report’s 114 recommendations includes 26 foundational recommendations that build on such cross-department collaborations. With support, these will expand community-based care, develop non-police mental-health emergency responses, establish a presumption of pretrial release, and guide eligible people to services that can break the cycle of houselessness and growing mental health needs — the basis of a reimagined system. 

Instead of arresting people in need, they will be met with services. Instead of sentencing someone to prison, a judge will deliver them to residential treatment. Instead of ever getting involved in the justice system, someone with mental health needs will find the care they need in the community.

The work of the Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup is foundational, but with all policy changes the key is implementation. The historical weight of this moment has the potential to serve as a critical juncture in the fight to divest from the harm of the carceral state and into a system of care and healing.

____

Kelly Lytle Hernández, recipient of a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, is a professor and Thomas E. Lifka Chair of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, [email protected]

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