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L.A.'s jail reform activists are proposing maddeningly modest demands

L.A.'s jail reform activists are proposing maddeningly modest demands
Protesters at an event organized by jail reform advocates block traffic outside the Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles on Mar. 10, 2017. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It is exceedingly difficult to qualify an initiative for the Los Angeles County ballot, so the Reform L.A. Jails movement achieved something remarkable earlier this year when it gathered nearly a quarter-million signatures on a petition to require a reexamination of jail funding and to enhance oversight of the Sheriff’s Department. Now the Board of Supervisors must choose whether to allow the measure to proceed to the March 3, 2020, presidential primary ballot or to short-circuit the process and grant the activists instant victory by passing the substance of their measure into law.

If only the activists’ demands weren’t so maddeningly modest.

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They want the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to study how to reduce the county jail population and redirect the resulting savings to non-jail alternatives, presumably including substance and mental health treatment and other rehabilitation programs. And they want the commission to have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, to better keep tabs on the Sheriff’s Department and its personnel.

There’s nothing wrong with those suggestions, but they miss the point. In fact, the Board of Supervisors has already created an Office of Diversion and Reentry that has redirected hundreds of would-be inmates to treatment, but its work is stymied by a dearth of community-based service organizations that can care for rising numbers of patients and that have the expert personnel and funding to meet acceptable standards of service. Furthermore, there’s fierce resistance from would-be neighbors to housing and clinics for patients who might otherwise be in jail.

County supervisors and the sheriff have done an abysmal job at communicating just what they are doing on alternatives to incarceration.


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County supervisors and the sheriff have done an abysmal job at communicating just what they are doing on alternatives to incarceration. And it may be that some county officials are quite comfortable with their failure to publicly outline their program, because without clear numerical targets and timetables for reducing the jail population and offering safe and useful alternatives, there can be no meaningful oversight of their efforts — no determination that they must pick up their pace, no outside evaluation of their efficiency and effectiveness. They may be unbothered by the fact that their recalcitrance has led to the petition drive and ballot measure.

As for subpoena power, the Los Angeles Times supports it, but recognizes that its value may be more symbolic than substantive. The files that activists appear to want most — documenting deputy misconduct and discipline — are either beyond subpoena power because of privacy laws or already within reach, without subpoenas, because of a recent change to state law. Witnesses could be ordered to appear before the commission, but it is not a court and would lack power to enforce its orders. Attempting to compel testimony could run afoul of the 4th and 5th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Activists may have fetishized or mythologized subpoena power, investing it with greater potency than it actually has.

But there is a more basic and more sweeping kind of power, and reallocating it might make the supervisors and the sheriff more responsive to the needs of their constituents.

That’s what happened in the city of L.A. after the beating of Rodney King led to public demands for Los Angeles Police Department accountability, and the police chief and department brass responded defiantly. Reformers went to the ballot in 1992 with a landmark measure (known as Charter Amendment F) that stripped the chief of civil service protection and virtual lifetime tenure and generally reallocated political power among him, the mayor and the Police Commission.

Los Angeles County was due for its Charter Amendment F following the resignation and conviction of Sheriff Lee Baca and other department personnel, but it still hasn’t gotten it. Structural reform would be a taller order than the city’s version, because, under the state constitution, the sheriff is unaccountable to anyone but the electorate (and criminal prosecutors). Until now, serious efforts to impose the right changes seemed futile because implementing them seemed politically impossible.

But the Reform L.A. Jails movement has demonstrated that there is a hunger for change, and that activists have the ability to get a reform measure on the ballot. The measure they have may be fine as far as it goes, but change of a more fundamental sort is needed.

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