June 13 2019

In recent blogs I have written – including a piece featured in the Chronicle of Philanthropy – you are very aware that I have been smitten with the notion of channeling outrage in a strategic fashion to advance social justice and health equity.  The unacceptable treatment of asylum-seeking migrants at our U.S.-Mexico border fueled my outrage in recent pieces.

This past week was both tough and inspiring for me on the social justice-and-equity front.

Let me start with the bad news.  Nationally, it has become clear that a woman’s right to claim sovereignty and justice over her own body continues to weather continued attacks, with the state of Alabama leading the assault.

Closer to home here in LA, the realm of equity-for-all received a double-dose of negativity.  First, a local parcel tax designed to improve funding for Los Angeles schools failed to reach the two-thirds threshold for passage. A real defeat for our children and our future.

Secondly, and even more painfully, our most recent count of the homeless population here in LA increased over the past year, despite successful efforts to apply more city and county funds to address the problem.    

On the homelessness issue, my experience as a former public health official and prevention specialist tells me that we are probably manufacturing homeless individuals faster than we can fund the housing and supportive services solutions.  But that’s not the primary focus of today’s blog.

Today, I want to focus on the positive and take the opportunity to commend our Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for creating a work group to provide them with an aggressive strategy to reduce incarceration in our region.

I have been honored to be selected by the Board of Supervisors to chair this group, an interesting blend of County departmental and agency representatives (like from the DA’s office, the Sheriff’s Department, the Public Defender’s office, and the Departments of Public Health and Mental Health), as well as a dozen “community” representatives – advocates in mental health and substance abuse treatment, and community members directly impacted by the system of mass incarceration.  The mission of our Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) Work Group: to design a county-wide system where access to needed services to impacted individuals is the first option, and jail is the last resort.

We presented our interim, 90-day report to the Board of Supervisors this week, and the final report is due before the end of this calendar year.  The Interim Report lists 14 goals and nearly 140 recommendations for needed action by county government — which is a lot to get one’s arm’s around.  But as a health policy person, I have now learned that justice reform is substantially more complex.  It is a system infused with our nation’s 400-year history of how the racial injustice of slavery was replaced with the racial injustice of mass incarceration of black and brown people.  This means that the deconstruction of our justice system’s tendency for mass incarceration involves centuries of issues related to narrative, culture, structure, strategy, services, financing, and sentencing – all functioning through the lens of race.  Hence, you get to 140 recommendations for systemic change.

This past weekend, I joined colleagues on the Board of Directors at the Weingart Foundation on a visit to Montgomery, Alabama to the Civil Rights and Memorial Museums.  All I can say about this visit is “Wow” – powerful, thoughtful, impactful, reflective.  I am unable to find the words to express the depth of my reaction to the memorial on Lynching of African-Americans that litter our nation’s history.  I could try, but I would fall well short.

I ask you to push, encourage, and support the efforts of elected officials endeavoring to bring an end to mass incarceration in our state and nation.  I invite you to review the 90-day findings of our ATI Work Group report and supported by a recent editorial in the LA Times – the link is here.

Let’s be strategic with our outrage.

Peace and blessings.

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