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Endorsement: Yes on Measure J. Shift L.A. County spending from punishment to treatment

L.A. County Supervisors Janice Hahn, Sheila Kuehl, and Mark Ridley-Thomas
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, center, with supervisors Janice Hahn, Nury Martinez, member of the Los Angeles City Council, and Mark Ridley-Thomas during a Dec. 2016 news conference. The board is asking voters to approve a county charter amendment to set spending requirements for alternatives to incarceration and other social service programs.
(Los Angeles Times)

Should the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors devote a healthy chunk of its annual revenue to community-based youth development, affordable housing, restorative justice, job training and similar programs?

Yes, of course. One of the county’s core functions is to serve residents in the greatest need, and for too long it has met those needs the wrong way — with arrests, when mental health treatment is critically lacking, and jail, when addiction treatment or supportive housing would bring better results. If our society is to help reverse generations of economic and racial inequity, much of the work must be done at the county level, where such services are delivered.

So does that mean the Los Angeles County Charter should be amended to require the Board of Supervisors to allocate at least 10% of its locally generated revenue to those programs?

That’s a somewhat different matter — and it’s the question that voters face on their ballots as Measure J, which proponents call “Reimagine L.A. County.”

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In July, the Times editorial board criticized the supervisors for even putting the measure before voters because there was so little time to shape the details and analyze the possible consequences. In the weeks since, we have gotten answers and worked through our misgivings. We urge voters to say yes, because the measure correctly resets the county’s spending priorities to match the needs of its people.

Los Angeles County is in the midst of a historic shift, rejecting construction of new jails and embracing an innovative Alternatives to Incarceration program resulting from rare collaboration among county officials, nonprofit service providers and community activists and representatives.

Sustaining the new policy direction will take money. Some comes from the remaining funds that had been set aside for the new jails, but that won’t be nearly enough. If the county is to fund a community-based, care-first approach to public safety without raising taxes, the Board of Supervisors will have to allocate a greater share of its existing funds to those programs than it currently does.

The county is a $35-billion-a-year operation, but most of the revenue is encumbered by state and federal mandates. The board’s discretion over locally generated funds is rather small — in the millions, not the billions — and the lion’s share of that money tends to go to interests that have the resources and expertise to lobby or sway supervisors.

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Those interests include the unions that represent sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, criminal prosecutors and others in law enforcement. They have every right to organize and fight for better pay and working conditions, but let’s not forget that they also fight for ever-larger shares of the county budget. For more than 40 years now, they have joined with sheriffs, district attorneys and similar groups and officials in other parts of the state in pursuit of a vision of public safety based on what they know — arrest, trial and jail. Nonprofit health and social services groups can more than match them in passion and vision, but they lack the resources to compete when county budget officials allocate money.

Measure J hardly evens the playing field, but it makes it a bit less slanted by ensuring that at least 1 of every 10 unencumbered, locally generated dollars is invested in services geared toward treatment and economic development rather than law enforcement and punishment.

Sheriff’s deputies and other county employees argue that Measure J shortchanges them, but in fact it just ramps back, ever so slightly, the advantage they have enjoyed for decades.

We wish the system worked differently, and that supervisors had the resources, the skills and, yes, the backbones to make their budget reflect their policy vision and the county’s needs. Meanwhile, though, here in the real world, voters must weigh in. Should they want spending to be more effective, equitable and humane? They should — and we urge them to vote yes on Measure J.


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