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Editorial: L.A. County should stick with its criminal justice reform measure

A sign that reads Official Ballot Drop Box on the front of a metal box
The November 2020 ballot for L.A. County voters included Measure J, which set minimum spending levels for social service programs. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ruled the measure is unconstitutional.
(Los Angeles Times)

In November, Los Angeles County voters backed a ballot measure that would eventually require the county to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on social services and jail diversion programs rather than on law enforcement and punishment. It was a bold measure, and by passing it with a resounding majority, voters made it clear that they want to change how public dollars are spent on public safety.

Now Measure J is in jeopardy. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has decided the measure is unconstitutional. In a tentative ruling that is expected to become final in a few weeks, Judge Mary Strobel said the ballot measure improperly restricts the current and future elected L.A. County Board of Supervisors from deciding how to spend county dollars.

Never mind that Measure J was drafted and put on the ballot by the board to do just that. Specifically, it requires the board to spend 10% of locally generated revenue on a variety of social services, including housing, mental health treatment and jail diversion programs. The measure bars the county from spending that money on prisons, jails or law enforcement agencies.

The county’s attorney has already suggested an appeal is likely. The county certainly should do so. But no matter the court ruling, voters have already declared in no uncertain terms that they want county leaders to reset spending priorities. Indeed, Strobel wrote that there’s nothing in her ruling that prohibits the supervisors from adopting a budget wholly in line with Measure J. What’s illegal, according to Strobel, is using a ballot measure to take budget decisions away from the board.

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Measure J was always a frustrating exercise in ballot-box budgeting. It was hastily put on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors to force its members — current and future — to spend more money on social services and jail diversion programs.

The board could have easily adopted an ordinance or a policy committing to spend a minimum of 10% of the county budget on a community-based, care-first approach to public safety. Instead, county leaders went to the voters saying, in essence: Please tie our hands and stop us from reneging on our public commitment to a new way forward. And prevent future boards from abandoning that path.

For that reason, we were initially skeptical of the ballot measure. Supervisors and advocates ultimately did make reasonable and pragmatic arguments for the ballot measure, which is why we ended up recommending a “yes” to Measure J. The fact is, it will take many years to establish the health, housing, youth development, diversion and job training programs and policies needed to unwind generations of economic and racial inequity and produce better outcomes for L.A. County residents. The supervisors need a long-term strategy to fund and support these programs that can withstand shifting political winds.

Voter support also helps buffer county leaders from the politically powerful unions that represent sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, criminal prosecutors and others in law enforcement. Not surprisingly, the lawsuit challenging Measure J was brought by the Coalition of County Unions, a labor group that includes the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents rank-and-file deputies.

Assuming L.A. County appeals Strobel’s ruling, the fate of Measure J could be tied up in court for several years. That’s no reason to delay this historic shift in spending, which is supposed to begin with $100 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and is slated to grow to $300 million or more in 2024. The voters have spoken. It’s time to make county investments more effective, equitable and humane.


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