A voter referendum that would bring sweeping institutional changes to America’s largest sheriff’s department has qualified for the March 2020 ballot in Los Angeles County.
The Reform L.A. Jails campaign, led by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, recently announced that “more than enough valid signatures” had been collected for placement alongside the next presidential primary race. Campaign organizers declared victory for “completing a process that’s set up to discourage people like us from doing exactly what we did.”
The multi-pronged ballot measure targets the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), which operates seven custody facilities and provides policing services to 42 contract cities. Titled the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative, the proposal seeks to stop the county from spending billions of dollars on two new LASD correctional centers and create alternatives to incarceration. If passed by voters, the referendum would also give a civilian oversight panel subpoena authority over LASD to investigate matters such as sheriff misconduct.
“We want them to have the power to compel deputy testimony, to compel evidence, to compel witness testimony,” said Reform L.A. Jails Campaign Director Jasmyne Cannick. “In order to make that happen in L.A. County, you have to change the charter.”
Election officials notified the campaign that its initiative had qualified for the ballot last Friday. Cannick and Cullors quickly mobilized supporters to attend Tuesday’s meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Criminal justice reform advocates called on lawmakers to adopt the legislation immediately without alteration, but instead, they opted to study its fiscal impact over the next 30 days. Once the board receives that report, it will certify the verification results and have ten days to either adopt the measure as law or send it to the voters for consideration in 2020.
“Many of these supervisors thought we were never going to be able to get the money to get a ballot initiative, let alone move a ballot initiative forward,” Cullors, chairperson of Reform L.A. Jails, told the Los Angeles Daily News.
Cullors launched the Reform L.A. Jails effort in March. For more than four months, campaign workers conducted an extensive, grassroots signature-gathering drive throughout the county. They were required by law to submit 146,333 valid petitions for qualification. Organizers said they presented more than 247,000 signatures to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk last month. Academy Award-winning actress Jane Fonda helped collect signatures, while a political action committee co-founded by activist Shaun King also provided canvassing support.
The Reform L.A. Jails coalition includes the ACLU, Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, and White People 4 Black Lives.
“L.A. should be super-proud of themselves,” Cannick said. “There are communities in California and across the country who are trying to move legislation like this. We were able to get it qualified, which is a big deal.”
Cullors, a police and prison abolitionist, has been organizing residents and community-based groups to reform LASD for at least six years. She has often been candid about her desire to “dismantle” law enforcement agencies and was instrumental in the establishment of LASD’s civilian oversight panel in 2016. Her Reform L.A. Jails measure would give that advisory board more independence and clout.
Prescott College in Arizona recently announced that Cullors had joined its faculty as an adjunct professor. Aspiring activists enrolled in the school’s Social Justice and Community Organizing program began their first semester with a month-long orientation in Los Angeles, where Cullors has emerged as one of the most prominent organizers in the region.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.