The activist group Reform L.A. Jails’ voice against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ proposed $3.5 billion budget to expand the jail system was heard loud and clear during an April 5 rally to protest the Board’s proposal. If the County taxpayer-funded budget makes its way onto the November 6 ballot and is passed, more jail facilities will be built to house more of what is already the United States largest inmate population.
The April 7 rally officially launched a citizen-driven measure known as the “Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative,” which proposes that jail expansion funds be diverted toward rehabilitation rather than punishment. Reform L.A. Jails is a collaboration of jail and prison experts, public safety and criminal justice reform leaders, residents, business owners and the community working to pass the Initiative.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, spoke to a crowd of nearly 100: “There are two unacceptable problems with LA’s jail system—millions of dollars wasted on a revolving door and no accountability for the people in charge of running the largest jail system in the world.”
Those who oppose the $3.5 billion “build more jails” budget agree that making room to incarcerate even more non-violent offenders who often suffer from mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, and homelessness, solves nothing. In fact, Los Angeles’ current approach to these types of offenses increases recidivism, violence, crime, and homelessness. When approximately 63 percent of those in Los Angeles County jails were convicted of nonviolent offenses or are merely awaiting trial because they can’t afford to pay a bond, according to the ordinance, building more jails to house these individuals is senseless both from a community and economic standpoint.
The Reform LA Jails ordinance asserts that the majority of those incarcerated who have committed offenses are “… often a result of efforts to survive without resources, a home, or community support services. Drug addiction and mental health issues, especially when combined with chronic homelessness, drive many crime incidents, which are primarily non-violent such as shoplifting and writing bad checks.”
The Reform L.A. Jails ordinance proposes that rather than spend $3.5 billion to expand inmate housing, those funds be redirected to support the Governor’s initiative Assembly Bill No. 109 (2011-12) (“AB 109”) Realignment to focus on rehabilitation of those convicted of non-serious, non-violent offenses rather than simply punishing them through incarceration.
For Los Angeles voters whose concerns are monetarily focused, it may be useful to know that, on average, it costs $75,560 a year to house a non-violent inmate at taxpayers’ expense, according to an LA Times article. For perspective, Harvard’s 2018–2019 tuition is $46,340. Incarcerating low-level offenders is exorbitantly and unnecessarily costly and, overall, costs society substantially more beyond just dollars.
Conversely, the cost of providing education, job training, mental health treatment, and transitional housing for a non-violent offender is estimated to be approximately one-third the cost of incarceration. When non-violent criminal offenses lead instead to legitimate, effective rehabilitative programs, the likelihood that the offender may become a productive, contributing member of society rather than a repeat offender substantially increases.
In jail, the problems the mentally ill, drug addicted, and homeless face often are exacerbated because they lack or have poor medical and addiction treatment or any other humane services. Upon release, without rehabilitative programs for inmates, these individuals retain the same issues that they entered their jail sentence with. And the homeless are still homeless—left to the streets once again, simply trying to survive. In fact, of the approximately 8,000 inmates released from Los Angeles jails every month, it’s estimated that 10 percent of them, 800 suffering people, if they weren’t homeless before jail, become homeless.
What does the Los Angeles community expect under the current jail system? And how is enlarging what is already an ineffective system going to reduce crime and protect the public?
It clearly cannot, say those who support the Reform L.A. Jails proposal; in fact, it is only going to make matters worse. Instead of building more jails, the ordinance proposes, the $3.5 billion should be diverted to youth violence prevention, compassionate therapeutic mental health services, and transitional housing to address Los Angeles’ chronic homelessness problem, effective drug treatment programs, and job training. To date, Los Angeles County spends far more on incarceration than the prevention programs that could impede crime, reduce taxes, and improve our community for all its citizens.
While the Board, which governs Los Angeles jails, wants to pour more taxpayer money into building more prisons, the Reform LA Jails proposed ordinance asserts, “Jails cannot effectively address underlying issues such as mental health issues, drug dependency, and chronic homelessness. Los Angeles County urgently needs a more effective strategy to stop the cycle of crime and save County resources. This [present] cycle is costly and ineffective.”
When a person commits a non-violent crime because of an addiction, mental illness, poverty or homelessness, incarceration hardly seems to be a solution that benefits society.
“Imprisonment breaks up families, prevents inmates from contributing to the support of their families … fails to rehabilitate, setting up both the prison and society for endless repeats of a crime-jail-joblessness-crime cycle,” California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell stated.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who have approved the $3.5 billion jail expansion budget ironically post on their website that their purpose is to work with the “issues affecting society’s most vulnerable … such as homelessness and poverty, mental health, child welfare, public safety …” email@example.com Yet, many agree that if their budget is passed, their stated purpose will be massively defeated.
If you are a Los Angeles resident, business owner, or stakeholder concerned about jail reform, you can make your concerns official by endorsing the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative. You can sign the petition, distribute petitions to gather signatures, host a signature gathering event, volunteer, and/or make a financial contribution. To participate, go to http://reformlajails.com/endorse/ and vote for the Reform LA Jails initiative in November!