On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to form a Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Safety to analyze strategies for—and the “unintended consequences” of—three major state-level criminal justice reform laws.
The motion, which came up against resistance from community organizations, passed with three votes: the motion’s authors, Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn, and Supe. Hilda Solis.
Supe. Mark Ridley Thomas abstained after asking the board to continue the motion so that it could be reviewed by County Counsel. Supe. Sheila Keuhl, who has also emerged as a champion of criminal justice reform, was absent from the meeting.
One of the three laws that the commission will focus its attention on is 2011’s AB 109, which shifted the incarceration burden for certain low-level offenders away from the California’s state prison system—the largest in the nation until recently—to the states’ 58 counties. The second law is 2014’s voter-approved Proposition 47, which downgraded six low-level drug and property felonies to misdemeanors. The money saved by Prop. 47 is earmarked for mental health services and drug rehab programs for criminal justice system-involved people, efforts to reduce truancy and help at-risk students, and for victims services. The newest law, Proposition 57, once fully implemented, will boost access to early release “good time” credits for eligible inmates who participate in education and other rehabilitative opportunities. Prop. 57 will also increase parole eligibility for non-violent offenders who have completed the base sentence for their primary offense, and will take the power to transfer kids to adult court out of the hands of prosecutors and gives the control back to judges.
Barger and Hahn say they hope to analyze the effects of these laws, as well as improve outcomes for people involved in the criminal justice system.
Those opposing the motion Tuesday argued that it is too law enforcement-centric, and too critical of reform legislation.
“The motion is critical of efforts to downsize the prison system – including Realignment, Prop 47 and Prop 57 (which hasn’t even yet resulted in anyone’s release) – claiming that changes in sentencing are causing increases in crime,” the Youth Justice Coaliiton said. “There is no evidence to support these claims, although too many law enforcement leaders are raising this argument.”
The newly approved Blue Ribbon commission will, among other tasks, conduct “a focused study of randomly selected “very high risk” AB 109 Post-Release Supervised persons to identify successes and challenges of supervision,” and conduct ” an analysis of the top 100 misdemeanants under Prop 47 with the highest recidivism rates and providing recommendations to improve rehabilitative services as well as options for detention.” It will also work to develop a matrix to calculate the recidivism rate for people released under Prop. 57. (It’s worth noting that, so far, no one has been released under Prop. 57. The commission will report back to the board every 90 days, and present a final report at the end of one year, at which point it will sunset.
“We must now explore a more comprehensive and holistic understanding that will deliver lasting solutions to restore the lives of the individuals entangled in the justice system,” Barger and Hahn wrote in their motion. “It is also critical that we deliver lasting solutions to respond to the challenges associated with recent public safety initiatives so that we can provide effective rehabilitation and re-entry programs as well as the highest level of public safety that can be afforded to those who reside in Los Angeles County.” The motion also seeks to shine a light on “the challenges experienced by law enforcement agencies and all first responders so that their safety and effectiveness may be maximized.”
Tuesday’s motion builds on another motion from February that sought information regarding the death of Whittier police officer Keith Boyar, who was fatally shot by Michael Mejia, a repeat probation-violator. Mejia also allegedly fatally shot his cousin Roy Torres before also killing Boyar and wounding another officer, Patrick Hazell.
At that time, Mejia was under the supervision of the LA County Probation Department and had been in and out of lock-up, reportedly serving two 10-day stints most recently, for violating the terms of his release. Before that, Mejia spent time in prison for robbery and for car theft.
After the shooting, Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper said that Mejia was a good example of how state reforms meant to reduce mass incarceration could go wrong. “You’re passing these propositions, you’re creating these laws that [are] raising crime,” Piper said at a press conference following Boyar’s death. “It’s not good for our communities and it’s not good for our officers. What you have today is an example of that.”
Other law enforcement officials, including LA County Sheriff Jim McDonell, have also criticized California’s criminal justice reform laws—particularly Props. 47 and 57, as well as AB 109—which they say have contributed to increases in crime and earlier release for law-breakers without robust enough reentry services like mental health care and substance abuse rehabilitation.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell spoke to the board in support of the commission. While the sheriff said that AB 109, and Props. 47 and 57 were “efforts to reform an overburdened criminal justice system” that were “developed with good intentions,” the laws “may have created unintended consequences placing our public and our first responders at risk.”
But according to The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, none of the three recent criminal justice reforms impacted how long Mejia spent behind bars before he was released, although he reportedly was released from prison to the LA County Probation Department under AB 109.
“It doesn’t help if we flash incarcerate a person…if they continue down the same path we’re striving for them to avoid,” Supe. Hahn said. It doesn’t matter if we diagnose someone with subtance abuse if we do not offer them on-the-spot treatment services. It doesn’t help if we receive incomplete or difficult-to-decipher information from the state about those whom we are expected to oversee.” These issues, Hahn said, “are the kind of challenges that our law enforcement, our probation officers, and our community service providers are facing in this new approach to criminal justice.”
Supervisor Hahn also noted that the original motion sought answers regarding the death of Officer Boyar, but that the information is still classified. Hahn said she believes “the public has a right to see these findings.” The county “should not be afraid of the truth or transparency,” Hahn said. “Both the classified report and result of this Blue Ribbon commission should be made public.”
The commission, which will be co-chaired by the LA County Chief Probation Officer and the District Attorney’s Office, will analyze “flash incarceration”—short jail stints for people like Mejia who fail to fulfill the terms of community supervision.
“Today’s action is not about a single case or a single person,” Supe. Barger said. “It’s also not about shame or blame…The purpose of this motion is very clear: to improve rehabilitation, improve public safety, including for the brave men and women in law enforcement.”
Representatives from community organizations like Homeboy Industries, the Youth Justice Coalition, Community Coalition, and a New Way of Life, spoke out against the creation of the commission, arguing that forming a “law enforcement-heavy” commission based on the murder of a police officer was not the best starting point for assessing criminal justice reforms and improving outcomes for people exiting lockup. Opponents also argued that the board should have spent some time gathering public input before presenting the motion.
Jose Osuna, Director of External Affairs for Homeboy, asked the supes to vote no on the “well intended” motion. “At Homeboy Industries, we do target the most violent offenders because we understand that those individuals are critical to the public safety of the County of Los Angeles.” The Blue Ribbon commission “is too heavy with law enforcement as its composition,” Osuna said. “It would not be structured in a way that is representative of the entire Los Angeles County community. The framework for this commission is flawed and reactionary.” Creating a group “that is tied to shooting a police officer…how could we expect this commission to come out with an unbiased report or a set of recommendations?”
Californians for Safety and Justice’s Alex M. Johnson was in agreement. “Too often we are quick to react to public safety problems by questioning just reforms instead of seeking to repeat what those reforms started: the task of replacing the broken justice system with evidence-based community safety solutions,” said Johnson, who has also served as Executive Director for the Children’s Defense Fund-California, the Assistant Senior Deputy for Education and Public Safety to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and at the start of his career—an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx. “Public safety challenges in Los Angeles County are real and must be addressed, but it’s beyond irresponsible to blame everything but the weather on reforms.”
Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator with Drug Policy Alliance, called the board out for not seeking more public opinion before taking the motion to a vote. Without the community inout, the motion “fails to address the needs that families and communities and advocates have communicated” to the board, Hernandez said. Rather than creating “another siloed group mostly composed of law enforcement,” the board should “consolidate relevant groups that currently exist and bring in other experts” and residents “who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, substance use, trauma, mental health issues or violence.”
“This motion doesn’t bring those people in,” Hernandez said.
Supervisor Hilda Solis agreed that the commission was “deeply unbalanced,” and left out “advocates for the re-entry population.” The motion would have reserved 11 seats for law enforcement, and 10 seats for non-law enforcement. Solis put forth amendments that changed the composition to 10 seats for law enforcement and 17 seats for non-law enforcement. Solis believes bringing advocate groups and “individuals directly benefitted by Prop. 47, Prop. 57, and AB 109” to the table will balance out the commission, which she hopes will be “an open forum” where community members and law enforcement can come together to work out ways to reduce recidivism.
“We need to make sure that we approach this with a spirit of community and not a spirit of division,” Kimberley Baker, director of the LA Mayor’s Office of Reentry, added. “This is not us against them. It’s not law enforcement against community.” If the supes voted to approve the motion, Baker continued, “We need to ensure that it’s a balanced and fair body, and that the voices of the people we’ve heard today—all of the people on both sides of this motion—are at the table.”
Image: Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department – Sheriff Jim McDonnell addresses the Board of Supervisors regarding the Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Safety.