The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) will begin to implement a plan to divert some adults arrested for select misdemeanors and non-violent felonies “to community support programs in lieu of filing criminal charges, prosecution, and transportation to jail facilities.”
LAPD described the endeavor as a “great opportunity” to develop strategies “which may reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.” Launched in cooperation with L.A. County’s newly formed Alternatives to Incarceration Office (ATI), the initiative intends to “advance the County’s vision to provide care and treatment instead of jail whenever possible,” LAPD said.
The offices of L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón and of L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer are also part of the endeavor, formally known as the Alternatives to Incarceration Pre-Filing Diversion Program.
“In many cases, treatment and services can be much more effective than brief time in jail,” said Feuer, a progressive Democrat who is running for mayor. “This pilot program provides intervention rather than prosecution, recovery rather than the status quo.”
According to a Feuer’s office, law enforcement will determine eligibility for diversion “based on the arresting offense and past criminal history, using criteria developed by the prosecuting agencies.”
“Eligible arrestees will be immediately introduced to onsite service providers, funded through the County ATI Office, who will assess the individual’s needs, create a treatment plan, provide links to service and follow up to ensure each individual is able to access the services they need,” the statement said. “Unhoused participants will be offered shelter and will be transported.”
Individuals with mental health disorders, substance use issues, and/or those who are “unhoused” are eligible to participate and “will be screened for amenability,” the police department said.
Considering that eligibility for ATI is based in part on criminal history, but being diverted to ATI means criminal charges might not be filed, it is unclear whether someone can be arrested repeatedly for the same offense under the program.
It could also add an additional opportunity for an arrestee’s criminal charges to disappear, as alleged offenses that are not diverted by LAPD may still be diverted or downgraded by prosecutors.
The LAPD 77th Street jail facility was the first selected for the program, which officials expect to soon expand to the LAPD Metropolitan Detention Center and LAPD Van Nuys jail.
The program is the result of years of organizing by an alliance of abolitionist activist groups — an effort that culminated in the election of progressive county lawmakers willing to implement their demands.
The Justice LA Coalition was formed in 2017 to stop the county from spending billions of dollars on two new jails. Lead organizers at the time included Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and her longtime ally Mark-Anthony Johnson, who had just been awarded a paid fellowship from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to “push for progress toward a more humane criminal justice system in the United States.”
As abolitionists, we know that our communities cannot win under this system—our fight for abolition remains our goal, and people power our strongest tool to dismantle all forms of state violence and replace them with care, dignity, and justice.
— JusticeLA (@JusticeLANow) April 21, 2021
Both Cullors and Johnson were mentored and trained by Eric Mann, a former Weather Underground radical who runs the Labor Community Strategy Center, a Justice LA Coalition partner.
Shortly after Cullors helped launch Justice LA, she explained, “We are demanding an end to mass incarceration in the U.S. and our county’s investment in police and jails,” later referencing “our movement’s call for abolition.”
Justice L.A. organizers demanded politicians redirect funds budgeted for the jails to other projects they say would better benefit residents, including building new schools, implementing job programs, and “investing in the health of our community members.”
“Making sure the jails don’t expand is a first step,” said Dr. Melina Abdullah, lead organizer for the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter, at a Justice L.A. Town Hall in 2018. “We don’t want cages at all. Our people don’t belong in cages.”
The coalition pressured the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors to cancel jail plans in 2019 and invest instead in “community-based treatment and alternatives to incarceration.”
The following year, county lawmakers committed to closing Men’s Central Jail downtown and voted to do so in June.
Last year, the Board was about to move forward with the construction of 2 new jails, but thanks to the work of our communities we are now on the brink of CLOSING one of the largest, most dangerous jails in the country! It's time for a #CareFirstBudget ! #CareNotCages #JusticeLA
— JusticeLA (@JusticeLANow) July 7, 2020
According to City News Service, officials said it would take 18 to 24 months to close the facility and plan for “redistributing some of the inmate population across other correctional facilities over time, while also releasing about 4,500 people currently behind bars to residential programs or into community treatment.”
The group’s advocacy pushed the BOS to establish the “Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group” tasked with developing a “road map, with an action-oriented framework and implementation plan, to scale alternatives to incarceration and diversion so care and services are provided first, and jail is a last resort.”
The 25-member ATI Work Group was chaired by Dr. Robert K. Ross, President & CEO of the California Endowment, an organization that describes itself as a health foundation but funds progressive causes and activist groups. Other voting members included Eunisses Hernandez, Justice LA campaign coordinator; Peter Eliasburg, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California and staunch ally of Justice LA; and Dr. Barbara Ferrer, LA County Public Health Director.
Their proposals included supervised consumption sites where users of illegal substances can inject drugs, decriminalizing “quality of life” crimes, and the creation of a new office to develop a strategic plan to implement the Board’s “care first, jails last” vision and build a countywide system of alternatives to incarceration.
Ross presented the ATI Work Group’s 114 recommendations to the BOS in March 2020, and the body voted unanimously to approve an ATI Office.
“Long prison sentences, laws facilitating police search & seizure, laws that make it difficult to challenge a wrongful conviction are the product of a failed tough-on-crime era that disproportionately hurt our communities of color while making all of us less safe,” tweeted Supervisor Hilda Solis at the time. Solis previously served as Labor Secretary for the Obama administration.
Today, @LACountyBOS approved a new report that shifts our focus from punishment and incarceration to support and diversion, where we expand access to mental health services for those who need it. We embrace a new ‘care first, jail last’ approach as we reshape our legal system. pic.twitter.com/YH2Box3Q0b
— Hilda Solis (@HildaSolis) March 11, 2020
L.A. County is home to more than ten million residents and the largest criminal justice jurisdiction in America.
The executive director of L.A. County’s ATI initiative is Songhai Armstead, who was part of D.A. Gascon’s transition team after he was elected in November. She was appointed to the Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 and retired last year to assume this new role.
In September 2020, the BOS approved its annual supplemental budget that included an initial investment of $72 million to launch the initiative.
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