NEW LA COUNTY SHERIFF: JIM MCDONNELL TAKES OVER THE REINS
Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell secured 75% of the vote, effectively trouncing former undersheriff Paul Tanaka. (If you missed it, WitnessLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, reported from McDonnell’s camp on election night.)
Of McDonnell’s decisive win, Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said, “Today Los Angeles County residents made history. They elected an outsider to lead the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Their vote is nothing short of a mandate for reforming the department. We look forward to working with Sheriff McDonnell to bring about the much needed changes that voters deserve and that justice requires.”
On KPCC’s Take Two, McDonnell discusses his victory, coming into the department as an outsider, and the future of Men’s Central Jail and mental health diversion.
Here’s a clip from the transcript, but take a listen for yourself:
Your predecessor Sheriff Lee Baca left under a cloud of controversy. There were charges of corruption and violence in the jails, allegations by the DOJ that mentally ill were being housed in inhumane conditions. Some policies have been put in place to deal with this, but what do you think still needs to be done?
I think it’s a work in progress. The DOJ is looking closely at it. A lot has been done since the jail commission’s report with 63 recommendations for change. Many of those have been implemented and others are in process. Moving forward, infrastructure is one issue. Mens Central Jail needs to be replaced. But also the philosophy within the jail environment. We also talked about a two-track system where deputies aren’t sent from the academy directly into the jails for the next seven years, and then on the streets until they are promoted back in or get in trouble and go back into the jail. It was for too many years treated as a dumping ground for the organization, and it’s one of the most high-liability areas of the department, and to treat it that way, if we were a business, we’d be in trouble.
What would you most like to see a new Mens Central Jail facility have?
I’d like to see a secure facility that is state of the art. It also provides for treatment of inmates who are mentally ill, but before we even deal with that issue be able to have some screening on the front end where we don’t use incarceration as the first option for those who are mentally ill and have offended based on that illness. But have community-based mental health clinics and courts that would screen an individual and provide the appropriate treatment rather than just incarceration as the only option.
MOVING FORWARD WITH PROP 47
Proposition 47—the reclassification of certain low-level drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors—passed on Tuesday with 58.5% of the vote.
Prosecutors, law enforcement, and advocates are already rushing to adapt to the changes. The LA City Attorney’s Office is looking to hire 15 new attorneys and staff to help manage the coming flow of downgraded misdemeanor cases, while social workers and drug courts are working to sort out what 47 means for substance abuse treatment.
The LA Times’ Paige St. John and Marisa Gerber have the story. Here’s how it opens:
Los Angeles County Public Defender Ron Brown walked into a Pomona court Wednesday and saw first-hand the impact of Proposition 47 — the voter-approved initiative that reduces penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes.
His office had deliberately postponed sentencing for a defendant facing more than a year behind bars for possessing heroin and methamphetamine to the day after Tuesday’s election, waiting to see what voters would do.
The gambit worked. The man was sentenced and released from custody with no further jail time.
“They were felonies yesterday. They’re misdemeanors today,” Brown said. “This is the law now.”
The day after California voted to reduce punishments, police agencies, defense attorneys, prosecutors and even some advocates were scrambling to figure out exactly how it was going to work.
The greatest effect, experts said, would be in drug possession cases, noting that California is now the first state in the nation to downgrade those cases from felonies to misdemeanors. Thousands of felons are now eligible for immediate release from prisons and jails.
City attorneys accustomed to handling traffic tickets and zoning violations are now responsible for prosecuting crimes that used to be felonies, including forgeries, theft and shoplifting. District attorneys who used to threaten drug offenders with felony convictions to force them into rehabilitation programs no longer have that as an option. Social workers said they worried that offenders who voluntarily seek treatment will have trouble finding services.
“It’s going to take a little while to figure out,” said Molly Rysman, who operates a housing program for the destitute who sleep on sidewalks in L.A.’s skid row. She is glad that drug users now face only brief stays in jail, if any time at all, but said options for someplace else to go in L.A. are “dismal.” Rysman said caseworkers now spend weeks trying to find an opening for clients who need a detox bed or room in a treatment program.
U.C. Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg says California’s passage of Prop 47 has the makings of a new national trend.
The Yes campaign brought together a wide assortment of interest groups that had not agreed about criminal justice policy in the past. Recent campaigns to challenge capital punishment and to reform the three-strike law helped forge a broad coalition of some victims’ rights groups along with powerful allies such as organized labor, the California Teachers Association, the California Nurses Association and state Democratic Party.
The most visible advocates for Prop 47 were San Francisco district attorney George Gascón, Santa Clara district attorney Jeff Rosen and former San Diego Police Chief William Landsdowne. These respected law enforcement officials viewed California’s mass incarceration policies as fiscally unsustainable and harmful to low income communities.
Even prominent national conservative figures like Newt Gingrich and Rand Paul announced their support for Proposition 47, arguing that current sentencing laws waste taxpayers’ dollars and do not curtail drug use. They prefer a focus on locking up violent offenders.
While Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke out against Prop 47, many other state leaders such as Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris remained neutral. One traditionally powerful lobby group, the Corrections Peace Officers Association took no position on Prop 47
It is significant that virtually all the past California governors and attorneys general almost always sided with the tough-on-crime position in ballot initiatives. In the case of Prop 47, their silence was deafening and hampered fundraising for the No camp.
Public confidence in the state’s prison policies has eroded.
Even the US Supreme Court declared the prisons so crowded and inhumane that it ordered the release some inmates. This dramatic court judgment led Californians to reconsider who should go to prison. Harsh criminal justice laws have been on the books long enough for Californians to be able to weigh the cost and benefit of these measures. The well-publicized failure and financial drain of the so-called “War on Drugs” has created has an environment in which voters are seeking new ideas.
More generally, the popularity of Prop 47 resonates with a growing distrust of government overreach into citizens’ lives and a preference for decision making that is closer to where people live. The demographics of the voting public which is younger, more ethnically diverse, and more highly educated than ever before is also favorable towards more progressive social policies.
If California helped lead the national charge in favor of more tough on crime laws, the state could lead the charge in the opposite direction.
California has traditionally been ahead of national developments, but a good predictor of future political trends. Since California is the largest state in the country, if Prop 47 passes other states may well follow suit. As California goes, so goes the nation.
TOM TORLAKSON KEEPS HIS OFFICE AS CALIFORNIA SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT
Incumbent California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson landed a victory for teachers unions, with 52% of the vote, over reform-minded competitor Marshall Tuck. (Backstory: here.)
San Jose Mercury’s Katy Murphy has more on Torlakson’s win. Here are some clips:
“We knew that when Californians look for direction on how to improve education,” Torlakson said in a statement, “they don’t look to Wall Street. They don’t look to Silicon Valley. They look to the people who are in the schools in their neighborhood every day — the teachers, the school employees, the teacher’s aides, the nurses, the counselors.”
The latest tally from the California Secretary of State’s office showed Torlakson winning by about 4 points.
Tuck conceded the race Wednesday morning, releasing a statement that said: “Together we proved that in California there is a growing call for change and that parents, kids and families can have a voice in education.”
The contest showed a growing rift within the Democratic Party on how to better educate poor and minority students who languish in low-performing schools.
The reform agenda carried by Tuck – and just as passionately resisted by its opponents, including the state’s teachers unions — promotes competition from independently run, taxpayer-funded charter schools and an overhaul of teachers’ pay, evaluation and job protections.
Tuck had vowed to reinvent the state superintendent’s office, turning it from a “mouthpiece for insiders” to a “voice for students and parents.”
Torlakson, the union and Democratic Party favorite, said he would bring stability and continuity as schools recovered from the devastating budget crisis triggered by the Great Recession.
“I think that resonated well in the education community,” said Maria Ott, a former superintendent and an executive in residence at USC’s Rossier School of Education Community.
SHEILA KUEHL WINS 3RD DISTRICT LA COUNTY SUPERVISOR SEAT
Sheila Kuehl beat out Bobby Shriver in a very tight race for outgoing LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s seat.
KPCC’s Frank Stoltze and Alice Walton have more on Kuehl’s win and what it will mean for LA County. Here’s a clip:
“It’s the biggest job I’ll ever have, and it’s a career capper for me,” Kuehl said from her campaign victory party at The Victorian in Santa Monica. “Being one of 80 0r one of 40 is very different than being one of five running something the size of Ohio. It’s a much tougher job.”
Kuehl, 73, will be the first openly gay member of the county board, which controls a $26 billion budget. Final ballots were still being counted into the morning. She won 53 percent of the vote.
Kuehl had campaigned on her experience as a member of the state Legislature. She argued it better prepared her to sit on the county board, which must implement a slew of state laws on health care, welfare and a range of other issues. She said Shriver was ill-prepared for the job.