As the largest jailer in the world, incarcerating an average of around 17,000 people each day, the Los Angeles County, California, criminal justice system has long been in need of reform. Next week, Angelenos will have the opportunity to cast a vote for much-needed progress in the form of Measure R. Backed by the Committee to Reform L.A. Jails, the ballot measure, titled “Civilian Police Oversight Commission and Jail Plan Initiative,” will update the LA County code to increase the investigative powers of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), and will require the panel to research and prepare a proposal exploring how to reduce the city’s overwhelming jail population and instead reinvest resources into communities devastated by mass incarceration.
There has already been some movement on these issues. Currently, the COC can conduct investigations into complaints by incarcerated people and others in the community and recently gained the power to ask the LA County Office of the Inspector General to subpoena documents and witnesses on its behalf. However, passing Measure R will grant the COC direct subpoena power, cutting out the middleman and increasing access to a wider range of evidence to help root out jail violence and other misconduct and hold officials accountable. Similarly, the COC created the Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) Work Group, comprised of community organizers and advocates, lawyers, and researchers. The Work Group is already working to reduce the jail population and instead provide community-based mental health care and other services, using $3.5 million in funding originally intended to build two new jails. Measure R will require the COC to build on the work of the ATI Work Group and create a comprehensive plan to move LA County away from its focus on incarceration as the response to issues such as mental illness, homelessness, addiction, and more. Ultimately, Measure R is critical because it will enshrine these ongoing reforms in law, preventing them from being rolled back by future sheriffs or other officials who are less inclined toward changing the city’s approach to criminal justice.
This week, Prism will feature a series of stories on Measure R and the movement to reform LA jails. We’ll start with an explainer detailing how policy changes such as Measure R make it onto the ballot. The series will feature a powerful essay by Patrisse Cullors, Prism Senior Fellow and chair of the Committee to Reform L.A. Jails, situating the LA movement for jail reform within the larger historical context of civil rights organizing and coalition-building. In the coming days, we’ll take a deep dive into how incarceration worsens mental illness and exacerbates homelessness in LA, check in on the race for district attorney and where the candidates stand on reform, and look at how art and activism have combined in the city to push for change. Finally, we’ll offer ways for folks to get involved beyond voting Yes on Measure R, even if you don’t live in LA.
Early voting has been underway since earlier this month, and Election Day is Tuesday, March 3.