but instead it has become a force of punishment and inequity that disproportionately harms people of color. Across our district, many people, particularly young men of color, are pushed into the prison system. Police violence is a leading cause of death among young men, and we have one of the highest prison populations in the world. Our communities are over policed, under resourced, and struggling from the impacts of incarceration. We need to reimagine a criminal justice system that will help create accountability and healing in our communities. To truly promote safety and justice, we must invest holistically in our communities and in restorative justice measures. We call for investing in mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and re-entry programs while reducing our jail and prison populations.
Our communities are over-policed and under resourced. This is an issue of systemic racism and structural, state-sanctioned violence against communities of color. Black people in LA are nearly 8 times more likely to be involved in law enforcement use of force than white people; Latinx people are more than twice more likely than white people. We see Black boys and men particularly impacted, and studies suggest that 1 in 1000 Black boys and men can now expect to be killed by police officers. This is a result of systemic racism.
Police departments have seen their budgets increase over the last several decades and we have seen many of them access military-level equipment. Without adequate training, police are expected to respond as social workers, mental health crisis responders, de-escalators, and more. This leads to many inappropriate responses and unjust deaths. We see racial biases continue to manifest in our police departments, and we see the impact that has on decreasing our community safety and eroding trust between communities of color and police officers.
LA County has the largest jail system in the world; the number of people in our jails is staggering. At any particular time there are nearly 17,000 people in custody in the LA County jail. There are multiple reasons for why our jails are overcrowded: lack of mental health community treatment options, the cash bail system, draconian drug laws, and systemic racism. Too many people are left in jail waiting for their arraignment because they cannot afford to pay bail. For example, from 2012 to 2016, 223,336 people were left in LA County jail because they could not make bail.
California jails disproportionately harm communities of color. In LA County, there are 83,600+ Black people in jail, an average of 19.8 incarcerations per 1000 people. In comparison, there are only 22,600 white people in jail, an average rate of 1.7 incarcerations per 1000 people. This is systemic racism, and it is directly harming our communities.
California has repeatedly failed to care for incarcerated people. During COVID-19, some jails and prisons had over 40% infection rates. Incarcerated people are often overcrowded, not given access to necessary resources like mental health care and regular doctor visits, and have little to no ability to communicate with their families and communities. Many of them have also had numerous reports of significant mistreatment.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources:
Race Counts‘ data on racial disparity across California
LA County Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group Final Report: Care First, Jail Last
ProPublica and Sacramento Bee’s article, “Cruel and Unusual: A Guide to California’s Broken Prisons and the Fight to Fix Them”
This Justice LA Now report on bail reform.
Even when individuals leave the criminal justice system, the reentry process is extremely difficult and has heavy impacts on communities of color. Many people recently released from prison face serious challenges, from finding employment to reconnecting with family and community members to accessing basic needs like housing and health care. Many people are released from prisons, sometimes after decades of incarceration, with no resources. These challenges contribute to 75% of people who are released from prison nationally to be re-arrested within 5 years. Not only is this not just: it is not benefiting our public safety our community wellbeing.
Finding employment after incarceration is extremely challenging. Indeed, the average unemployment rate for those with conviction histories is over 25% nationally. These issues compound. For example, formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness.
We must do better for our communities. Individuals need access to real opportunities and resources when they leave incarceration. Increasing access to adequate resources for formerly incarcerated folks is critical to continuing to strengthen and heal our communities.
Our current criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over accountability and restoration, and it offers too few resources for people with mental illness. Individuals with serious mental health illnesses are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons. In LA County, it is estimated that 30% of the jail population is dealing with a serious mental health issue. That holds in state prisons as well, where close to a third of inmates have a documented serious mental illness. Many are also struggling with substance abuse: some studies estimate that nearly 60% of people released from jail each day are dealing with some kind of substance use disorder. Individuals with mental health illnesses are more likely to be caught in the incarceration system, with studies showing that there are more individuals with mental health illnesses in jails than in mental hospitals. One shocking and extreme indication of this is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death in US state and federal prisons. Only natural causes and AIDS surpass it.
Yet, our jails and prisons do not have the resources needed to adequately offer the care these individuals need to get well. They do not need jail cells: they need treatment.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources:
This report from the California Budget & Policy Center outlining mental health needs in California prisons and jails.
This overview of the role mental health places in our criminal justice system.
This Marshall Project report on mental health care access in federal prisons.
This CalMatters article on mental health treatment in prisons.
This American Psychological Association article on improving mental health care for inmates.
We need to deeply divest from our current system of incarceration: it is clear that it is not keeping our communities safe or helping us find accountability, healing, and restitution from harms committed. To this end, we must drastically reduce our jail & prison populations and decrease funding to police and prison systems. Many people are incarcerated simply because they do not have the resources to post bail or because they’re incarcerated for crimes of poverty. By spending less money on keeping individuals incarcerated and instead investing in robust social programs, we firmly believe our communities will be able to better thrive and reduce violence.
Instead, we must invest in alternatives to incarceration, including restorative justice approaches and mental health care for those in and out of prison. People need access to fair and affordable housing, good paying jobs, free healthcare, and a high quality education. As we move from punitive systems to preventative supports, we will fight for:
In addition, we need justice systems that truly focus on accountability and healing, not punishment. We must end practices that perpetuate racist outcomes and avoid accountability. Black Lives Matter, and that means we must end qualified immunity; eliminate prosecutorial use of gang enhancements that increase sentences for those apprehended with alleged (and sometimes falsified) gang ties; end cash bail; expand public access to the Commission on Judicial Performance, which provides oversight over judicial misconduct; and ban the use of predictive algorithms that can perpetuate biases in policing or judicial decision-making. We must then take those funds and invest them in restorative justice measures.
We must remove state agents with any history of misconduct or engagement with explicitly white supremacist organizations and offer ongoing anti-racism support for all judges and decision-making staff. Simultaneously, we can diversify and democratize who enters judgeships by enabling campaign finance reform and requiring judgeship information in voter guides. We should also disallow anyone involved in public safety from taking police union or police money.
Finally, we must recognize the humanity of incarcerated Californians. While we live in a world that maintains systems of incarceration, we can ensure that already-marginalized Californians are not further disadvantaged by those systems. We can: