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O.C. devotes significant funding to law enforcement despite need for community programs, report finds

Orange County Sheriff's deputies prepare for a Donald Trump rally.
A report by the Urban Peace Institute contends that Orange County devotes much of its budget to law enforcement agencies rather than crucial community programs.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County is failing its residents by investing in law enforcement rather than its most vulnerable communities, according to a recent report by the Urban Peace Institute.

Among several findings, the report, titled “Investing in Community Health: An Orange County Budget and Safety Analysis,” shows that the county isn’t addressing the root causes of mass incarceration by devoting enough resources towards community-driven methods that delve deeper into social issues like income inequality and homelessness.

This leaves underserved residents vying for basic needs in one of the country’s richest counties, according to the Los Angeles-based institute focused on promoting community health and safety, ending mass incarceration and expanding community policing.

“Counties and cities across the country have historically spent large portions of their budgets on what is traditionally known as public safety, such as police departments and prosecutors, and this holds true for Orange County,” the report says. “However, there is a growing consensus that a larger investment in community health, rather than systems of punishment, are a more effective, efficient and sustainable way to create lasting public safety and address the underlying root causes of violence and crime.”

The report comes amid a national movement to defund police departments.

Eric Lam, manager of strategic initiatives at the Urban Peace Institute, said the county budget should include significant investment in community health in the form of community-backed programs for mental health and drug treatment, among others.

The county’s public safety budget increase of 15% over the last six years is higher than its overall budget increase of 11% over that time. Other than the county’s Health Care Agency, investments in community-based organizations have largely remained stagnant, according to the report. The county wielded a total budget of $6.8 billion in fiscal year 2019-20.

“When we say budgets are moral documents, we mean they represent the values and priorities of the people so they should ultimately be responsive and reflective of the community’s needs and voices,” Lam said. “We don’t feel the Orange County budget reflects the actual needs of residents upon our assessment of participant public agencies most closely aligned with safety, criminal justice and juvenile justice.”

Lam said one of the most glaring statistics they found was that juvenile probation spending increased by 57% while juvenile arrests dropped by 60%, showing that arrest rates don’t dictate investment.

“In other words, the investments don’t actually meet the need,” Lam said.

The investments in public safety agencies also don’t necessarily yield results. Despite the increase in spending to the Sheriff’s Department, the agency saw an increase of violent crimes by 28.6% between 2013 and 2018. Yet, the number of cases that were solved decreased.

Furthermore, the researchers contend that there are larger community problems that need adequate funding.

“Our analysis paints the picture of growing poverty and inequality in Orange County, which can lead to a negative cycle of increased crime and contact with the justice system,” the report says.

The report shows that the median hourly wage for white residents is more than double that of Latino residents. Due to the income inequities, rent burden is becoming a significant problem for communities of color in Orange County, and homelessness increased by more than 43% from 2017 to 2019. These issues, though significant to many residents in Orange County, receive less attention than law enforcement in the county’s budget.

The institute was tasked with looking into Orange County’s budget by the California Endowment. The report took about nine months to compile. For its research, the institute reviewed public information provided on the county’s website and other information obtained through public records requests. The institute largely focused on the district attorney’s office, the probation and sheriff’s departments and the Health Care Agency for its analysis.

“While the County of Orange cannot comment on the report as we have not had a chance to read it at this time, we can state that we are working under the County’s Integrated Services 2025 Vision Report,” said county spokesperson Molly Nichelson in an emailed statement.

”...The County’s goal, consistent with the Federal Stepping Up Initiative, is to reduce the number of mentally ill individuals in our jails and to reduce the number of individuals in our system of care by wrapping them in services until they achieve self-sufficiency. As we implement the Vision 2025 Integrated Services Strategy, the concept is that more funds will flow to Program II Community Services and less funds will flow to Program I Public Protection. That process takes time, but the County is committed to it.”

The institute has a number of recommendations for the county to modify how it addresses community and public safety needs.

One of these recommendations is for the county to stop expanding detention centers like the James A. Musick facility and reinvest that money into community-based services for drug treatment, mental health services, housing, gang intervention, outreach services and pre-arrest diversion programs for youth and adults, among other programs.

The report also urges the county to increase budget transparency and include the public more in the budgetary process.

“Studies have shown it’s much more efficient and impactful to invest in the front end than the back end,” Lam said, explaining that prevention is more effective than punishment.

Lam said they hope the report will provide a blueprint for nonprofit organizations, residents and public officials to rethink how the county’s budget should be allocated. On Tuesday, the researchers presented the report to several nonprofits and community organizations.

“What this is helping to do is reframe the conversation around community safety and health to reimagine and redesign what a structure of budget that is reflective of community needs looks like,” Lam said. “And then to move forward around advocacy, to building in community voice that is truly reflective and honors what people are paying for.”

To read the report, visit urbanpeaceinstitute.org.

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