Briefing for Faith Leaders on LA Criminal Justice Challenges

LA Criminal Justice Challenges With almost 19,000 persons behind bars, the LA County jail system is the largest local jail system in the country; it is also a system marked by decades of documented abuse in the form of deputy-on-inmate brutality and violence—even gang activity by groups of deputies—to the point that the U.S. Dept. of Justice is requiring the County to enter into a consent decree that addresses the treatment of persons with mental illness. The ACLU of Southern California has pursued an ongoing class action suit over the deplorable levels of deputy brutality in the jails.

  • LA County missed the opportunity to significantly reduce its jail population when the state legislature enacted Public Safety Realignment (AB 109) over three years ago. They could have released many of the low-level offenders to rehabilitative support settings in the community as other counties do; they chose instead to keep most of these “N3” folks (N3 = nonviolent, non-sexual, non-serious offenses) locked up. They spent over 80% of the over $1 billion in Realignment funds they have received from the state on law enforcement (with most of that amount going to the LASD) rather than on rehabilitative services—and they captured this windfall at the same time that the community and faith-based service providers have been starved for operating funds.
  • The passage of Prop 47 together with the election of a new sheriff and two new county supervisors could and should be a game-changer as we move into 2015. Prop 47 could lead to the release of as many as 4,000 current county jail inmates whose felony offenses will be reclassified as misdemeanors under the new law. But both the City and County need to devote the resources needed to ensure that these releases go forward AND that the persons released will have adequate support upon their release: housing, employment readiness, drug treatment, and mental health treatment as needed.
  • Next year the new Board of Supervisors must commit itself to devoting at least 50% of state-provided Realignment funds to rehabilitation and support rather than incarceration.
  • The new Board and the new Sheriff must support aggressive diversion at every level of the system. At least one third of the 3,600 jail inmates exhibiting mental health conditions can safely be diverted to community-based facilities; another 500-1,000 the inmates who are being held prior to trial and who are too poor to make bail could also be diverted at the Sheriff’s discretion, using reputable risk-assessment tools, if the BOS grants him the authority.
  • Aggressive diversion, coupled with the expanded use of split sentences and the systematic reclassification/release of inmates under Prop 47, would drastically shrink the jail population and make all talk of an expensive jail expansion ($3.5 billion, with interest) null and void.

peter-laarman-k-e1360713223533Our LA City and LA County leaders must listen to the community and must help build up the capacity of community-based service providers. This includes building up capacity to assist reentering persons in navigating the current system of “siloed” services in order to obtain the help they need. The money needed for new smart justice steps is literally pouring in from the state, but it is up to us to make sure that these funds are used for healing and hope rather than simply fattening dysfunctional and unresponsive bureaucracies.

Peter Laarman

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.