Measure J would set aside 10% of locally-generated unrestricted money in LA County's budget — to be spent on alternatives to incarceration. It would allocate up to $500 million per year to a range of programs, including job training, rent assistance, mental health services, and substance abuse treatment.
The idea is part of the bigger push for racial equity. Measure J is supported by Democratic party groups and some nonprofits, including the United Way of Greater LA and the YWCA.
KCRW hears from both supporters and critics of Measure J.
Isaac Bryan is Executive Director of the UCLA Black Policy Project and co-chair of Re-Imagine LA County, a coalition supporting Measure J.
KCRW: Why do you believe Measure J is needed?
Isaac Bryan: “This measure has been in the in the works for over a decade, as the county of Los Angeles has sought to decarcerate, to end its contracts to build new jails, to set up an office of diversion and reentry, and to start looking at alternatives to incarceration that are rooted in care, healing, and opportunity.
This year, this measure is especially timely because what seems like every year, we’ve seen another barrage of lethal encounters for Black folks in our law enforcement institutions. And we're having a national conversation about what the policy interventions should look like.
And Measure J is one of those fiscal policy interventions that I think is more than appropriate.”
What specific services do you think need increased funding?
Isaac Bryan: “I think we need mental health supports, right? The largest mental health institution in the state of California is the LA County Jail. We are the largest jail system in the country, right? We need to take a close look at the resources we're putting into our systems of harm — that could otherwise be put into systems of care. So we need mental health supports.
We need youth development. We spend $280,000 per year per young person to incarcerate young people who are crying out for care and opportunity. We need to set up a youth development department and youth development supports.
We need transitional and affordable housing for folks that are experiencing homelessness, that are becoming an increasingly growing share of those who encounter our criminal legal system, and who cycled through the county jail.
We're spending this money anyway. And we need to spend it in a way that gets us better results and really gets people moving in the direction towards opportunity that they deserve.
… Measure J calls for a holistic look at these kinds of community investments and alternatives to incarceration, including input from those who have been most impacted.”
Some supporters of Measure J say this is not the same as defunding the police. Why not?
Isaac Bryan: “Because this measure doesn't specifically call for any funds to be taken from our law enforcement agencies. What it does call is for the county to prioritize care in a way that it never has before — by allocating this 10% towards healing and opportunity.
Now looking at that 10%, I don't know how you get that without having a critical conversation about the disproportionate share of resources that our carceral system takes hold of here in our county.
But it doesn't explicitly call for a defunding of any law enforcement.
What it does say is that none of this money that's earmarked, which has the potential to be from $500 million to $1 billion, can go towards the courts, the district attorney's office, the probations office, or the sheriff's department.”
Some critics of Measure J say LA County is already struggling to deal with lower taxes and a budget shortfall because of COVID-19, and this is not the time to put another financial mandate on the county. What would you say to that?
Isaac Bryan: “Measure J is not a tax by any means. It does not transfer any kind of burden to voters of the broader constituents in LA County. What it does is it prioritizes our values, right? The values that millions of us have marched for. It does not bind the county supervisors in any kind of fiscal way because it moves with county revenues, right? It really just forces us to set a floor, a foundation for our systems of care and opportunity.
Four out of the five current Board of Supervisors [members] also endorsed this measure and voted to put it on the ballot. And so there's a recognition that this is not in any way shape or form harmful for the county, but it's a step in the right direction. And it's such an important step that the Board of Supervisors have given it to the voters to make the final decision because the perpetuity of its nature, this call for 10% every year forever, is something that the voters have a right to decide on. And I think the voters will decide that it's critically important and it's needed.”
Measure J is also running into opposition, including from some local law enforcement unions. Michelle Hanisee is a longtime prosecutor and President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, a union representing deputy district attorneys in LA County.
She says there's a better way to address social injustices while maintaining essential services for Angelenos. “But rushing to redirect massive amounts of public funds without any studies or proper checks and balances is the very definition of bad public policy.”
What services do you think could be at risk could be lost if Measure J gets approved?
Michelle Hanisee: “Well, it could be anything. It could be 911. It could be fire. It could be health services for indigent people.
The outgoing CEO of the county, Sachi Hamai, told the Board of Supervisors that Measure J would result in even deeper curtailments and layoffs to the workforce, and that it would substantially reduce services. So it could be any services.”
You say there's a better way to do this. What is that better way?
Michelle Hanisee: “The better way is to leave the Board of Supervisors in charge of the budget, so that they can allocate the funds that are coming in based on all the needs of the county — not pre-allocating a certain amount of money and then leaving themselves with the shortfall when it comes to things that they have to pay for, like the basic services, like fire, like health care.”
Measure J supporters point out that these are unrestricted funds — a portion of the funds going into the county budgets. They’re not arguing that you're going to be wholesale shutting down certain services.
Michelle Hanisee: “Well, it was interesting, in the deposition of the budget manager for the county, he was really unclear where this money was coming from, and how that was going to be defined. Which is alarming when the county budget manager doesn't quite understand which money is being allocated.
And then I have to look back to the experts who work for the county who they themselves have said this would result in cuts to essential services.”
Measure J supporters say too many people with mental illnesses and substance abuse challenges end up in the criminal justice system, which isn't equipped to help them; and that too many of them fall through the cracks or end up incarcerated again. Don't they have a point?
Michelle Hanisee: “They do have a point. And no one's saying that those programs that help mentally ill [people] shouldn't be funded. The question is: Should it be at the cost of some other essential service? Or should it be left in the hands of the Board of Supervisors to balance the budget to appropriately fund each program that's worthwhile?”
Some labor unions nationwide are against Measure J. Some people are saying that this is just an effort to protect jobs, to look after your own. How do you respond to that?
Michelle Hanisee: “Well, I don't think it's unreasonable for the labor unions to try to prevent their members who were county employees from getting laid off, as the CEO said would occur.
What the citizens need to be concerned with is what services are going to be reduced when you're laying off members of the county workforce. So while there's a loss of the labor unions, there's a loss to the public and the taxpayers as well when you fire employees and you have to reduce services.”
Some people say that this measure was rushed onto the ballot, that not enough thought went into crafting it. Is there some logic to that?
Michelle Hanisee: “Oh, there is. Normally when a major spending measure is proposed by the Board of Supervisors, they will do extensive studies and have pre-determinations about how the money is going to be spent.
They didn't do that at all with Measure J. And again, the county budget manager said he didn't even know where this money was going to be allocated. It's completely up in the air. So you don't know what you're buying with Measure J.”