If Los Angeles County government were a criminal offender, The Times wrote Tuesday in an editorial, corrections officials would say it is in need of a short and swift punishment to get its attention, refocus on reality and consider its options for change.
The subject was the second anniversary of AB 109 public safety realignment, and the county’s poor decisions on spending and its squandering of opportunities in the legislation to make realignment work with smarter, more efficient use of jail space and community corrections service providers.
We’re not alone in seeing the county as a problem member of the community. At 11 a.m. Wednesday, many rehab providers and criminal justice advocates plan to put the Board of Supervisors “on probation.” See the group's short film on YouTube here.
And an hour later, the Youth Justice Coalition is gathering to issue “an injunction” to City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office to prevent it from seeking any more gang injunctions like the one it sought and last week was granted against six gangs in a portion of Echo Park.
Theater can be an important part of a public dialogue, and there is some justice, if you’ll pardon the expression, in these actions. The county’s failure to use its state grants guaranteed under last year’s Proposition 30 to fully fund rehabilitation providers, along with its failure to grant Sheriff Lee Baca power to release people who haven’t yet been convicted of anything and are stuck in jail merely because they can’t post bail, the Superior Court’s failure (together with prosecutors and defense lawyers) to pair jail time with mandatory supervision upon release, and the city attorney’s demand for the Echo Park injunction at a time when crime there continues a sharp decline, are all of a piece. The state is trying to turn a corner on criminal justice, applying the harshest sentences to the most egregious and most dangerous offenders, while spending its remaining resources in ways that will correct lower-level offenders before they go too far down a criminal path – and before they become part of the cycle of recidivism that clogs courts, jails and prisons, and empties taxpayers’ wallets.
The AB 109 legislation that took effect two years ago and transferred responsibility for some felons from state to county government included provisions to encourage “split sentencing.” Under such a program, a lower-level felon who might otherwise be sentenced to two years in jail could instead receive a sentence of a year plus another year of mandatory supervision by a county probation officer, who would monitor the offender’s progress in drug rehab, job training or whatever else was deemed appropriate.
It’s got nothing to do with making sentences more lenient. On the contrary, defense lawyers often reject such sentences when they are offered in other counties because their clients would rather spend the time in jail without a mandatory “tail” on release. They know, after all, that jail crowding likely means they won’t be serving the full time behind bars anyway. But a split sentence keeps them under watch – as they should be – for the full sentence, and community-based corrections (rehab and other programs) have a much better record of stopping repeat offenses than straight jail time.
Sentences are split in Los Angeles County just 5% of the time – the worst record in the state of implementing this tool.
The Times supports split sentencing and has called on Los Angeles County courts, prosecutors and defense lawyers to adopt it and start reaping some of the same benefits seen in counties like Contra Costa.
The Times also supports a careful and limited program of pretrial release. It is worth noting that the sheriff already routinely releases people accused of heinous crimes as they await trial simply because they can pay their bail. He has little choice. The people who would be released under the kind of program allowed under AB 109 are accused of much lower-level crimes and on average pose a much lower level of threat, both of flight and of committing crimes, than their counterparts who can post bail. As it stands, they are taking up jail space that could be used for people already convicted of serious crimes – who are let out after serving a mere fraction of their sentences because there is no room for them in jail.
The Times also opposed the Echo Park gang injunction because there was insufficient showing that the people who will be covered by it present a danger to their community, that regular law enforcement techniques cannot adequately address any problems, and that the harm done to people named in the injunction is outweighed by the benefits to the community.
The demonstration to put county leaders on probation takes place at the lobby of the MALDEF building, 634 South Spring St., in downtown Los Angeles.