Bob’s Blog:LA County’s Measure J- A Bold Stroke

Last November, voters of Los Angeles County decisively approved a grassroots-organized ballot measure that dedicates a portion of the county general fund budget to advance a “Care as the First Resort, and Jail as the Last Option” approach to the criminal justice system and improving public safety.  Incarceration approaches to improving public safety are problematic on three fronts: 1) it is extremely expensive for taxpayers; 2) it ignores the public health issues of mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and hopelessness; and, 3) the data and research confirm a racial bias in how incarceration is applied and how “justice” is served.  Structural racism is alive and well in our justice system.

Moreover, scores of other developed nations have assured public safety with far lower rates of incarceration than the United States.

Enter Measure J, which was inspired by local activists and advocates in LA County — who are leaping past incremental reforms in the justice system – seeking a profound, meaningful transformation that re-imagines public safety, and leads to a substantial reduction in the number of incarcerated human beings. Nothing like Measure J has been achieved in any city, county, or state jurisdiction in our nation’s history.

Last year, on behalf of the LA County Supervisors, I was privileged to chair an “Alternatives to Incarceration” (ATI) Workgroup, which was an interesting blend of county departmental representatives and community leaders impacted by incarceration and the voracious prison pipeline.  Our final report to the County Board of Supervisors laid out a roadmap for a transformative approach that asserts “Care First”: far more mental health and substance abuse treatment, scaling up effective court diversion efforts, supportive and transitional housing expansion, workforce training, and new “restorative villages” that integrate such services into community settings rather than jail.

Measure J was passed by voters just as the County Supervisors and the County CEO (Fesia Davenport, the county’s first African-American woman CEO, and herself a product of the over-incarcerated South Los Angeles community) began to wrestle with how to begin implementing the ATI report recommendations – so the timing could not have been more perfect.  Now LA County has a voter-endorsed budget tool that, in effect, de-carcerates the county’s jail system while erecting a system of services and supports in its place.  While it is doubtful that Measure J’s set-aside of county general fund dollars will be enough to fully implement a countywide “care first” vision, the dollars invested represent a powerful message that has begun to resonate nationwide: spend less on law enforcement-driven incarceration, and invest more to make human beings healthier and whole.

LA County Supervisors have returned to the concept of having county officials and community representatives working side-by-side to prioritize Measure J funding in the early going.  I was appointed by County Supervisor Hilda Solis as a member of the Measure J Committee, skillfully chaired by social justice leader Veronica Lewis.  The process of having Committee members absorb the wisdom and experiences of those community leaders and families impacted by the justice system — and translating that wisdom into funding recommendations for programs – can be a bit messy.  But meaningful and inclusive democratic participation in such processes are both inspiring and “messy” at the same time.  Top-down, authoritarian, non-inclusive processes are much more tidy – just not democratic.  Our Measure J Committee is navigating through the prioritization process at this very moment.

Speaking as one participant in the process – and as a leader in philanthropy who has been transformed by the leadership of grassroots and county leaders fighting to reimagine an unjust system – I look forward to seeing how Measure J helps realize a powerful vision: the closure of the outdated and dilapidated Men’s Central Jail near downtown Los Angeles, and being replaced by a vibrant “restorative village” of services, supports, housing  and hope.  Community safety and racial justice will be served.

This is a very big deal — not just for LA, but for our nation.

Robert K. Ross

President & CEO

The California Endowment



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