Mass Incarceration

Los Angeles Is Creating a Model for Fighting Mass Incarceration

Los Angeles Is Making a Mannequin for Combating Mass Incarceration

Abolitionists and advocates of felony justice reform in Los Angeles County have amassed some spectacular victories, laying out a imaginative and prescient for lowering incarceration and offering care that would have nationwide significance.

JusticeLA activists at a rally in 2019 (Dignity and Energy Now/Fb)

Within the late spring and summer season of 2020, protests for racial justice erupted in response to the police homicide of George Floyd. Mobilizations unfold all through the nation and continued for months, producing what students recognized as arguably the largest wave of mass protest in U.S. historical past.

Nonetheless, as with different surges of in style rebellion, the actions died down over time. At that time, critics claimed that protesters made loads of noise and drew public consideration however had been unable to translate their discontent into concrete coverage positive factors. When the second of peak protest handed, these detractors held, the motion disappeared with little to indicate for its efforts.

This narrative overlooks ongoing organizing efforts which have made necessary positive factors each earlier than and after mass protests captured the highlight. And there are few higher locations to see such organizing in motion than Los Angeles County.

Whereas their work has gotten little nationwide consideration, organizers in L.A. have amassed some spectacular victories. First, in 2019, a coalition towards mass incarceration succeeded in stopping a jail enlargement plan that the county claimed would value $2 billion, however that activists and group leaders charged may drain in extra of $3.5 billion in public funds. Subsequently, grassroots teams steered the work of a county Options to Incarceration Workgroup, which in 2020 produced a set of suggestions that JusticeLA, a coalition of greater than fifty group organizations, unions, and activist teams, called “a groundbreaking roadmap for decarceration and repair enlargement.”

Adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as official coverage in 2020, the Care First, Jails Last agenda features a detailed set of suggestions that “intention to supply therapy and companies to these in want, as a substitute of arrest and jail.” Amongst them are mandates to dramatically cut back money bail, broaden implementation of community-based hurt discount methods, channel funding to packages for at-risk youth, set up pretrial companies in extremely impacted communities to switch law-enforcement supervision, present beds for these launched from jail who’re in want of interim or supportive housing, and create pressing care facilities to supply trauma-informed psychological healthcare all through the county.

To guarantee that these insurance policies would truly be carried out—and that finances shortfalls wouldn’t be used as an excuse for stonewalling—activists secured a funding stream that’s set to channel a whole lot of tens of millions of {dollars} every year towards alternatives-to-incarceration initiatives. Within the wake of the George Floyd mobilizations, organizers efficiently pushed for the passage of Measure J, requiring that 10 p.c of the county’s unrestricted normal funds be invested in implementing the agenda. In precept, this might translate to effectively over $300 million yearly. Vox called it “maybe essentially the most vital victory for the police reform motion since [the] summer season’s protests.”

Little doubt, the wins up to now are solely partial ones. Activists have been pressured to combat towards each bureaucratic intransigence and authorized challenges from deputy sheriffs. In March, they issued a report card to county directors filled with failing grades, accusing these officers of falling in need of their commitments. Courtroom rulings impeded the preliminary implementation of Measure J, though activists have since pushed the county to honor the funding necessities. Despite all of the difficulties, the mannequin put forth by grassroots teams in L.A. holds real promise, representing an effort to basically reorient the county’s method to public security and care.

Lex Steppling, a local of Los Angeles and Nationwide Director of Organizing for Dignity and Energy Now, has been current all through these battles. His group has been on the core of coalition drives to stress officers for change from the surface—and in addition to interact with the county in its inside processes to craft and implement new insurance policies. Amongst different associated efforts, Dignity and Energy Now could be a part of the chief committee of the JusticeLA coalition. We just lately spoke with Steppling in regards to the mannequin popping out of L.A. County and the importance of native organizing to advance racial justice and oppose mass incarceration for individuals in different components of the nation. Our dialog has been edited for size and readability. 

Mark Engler: If we had been to make a timeline, what would you say was the primary huge marketing campaign within the present drive towards mass incarceration right here? Was it stopping L.A. County’s plan for jail enlargement?

Lex Steppling: Timelines are tough as a result of nothing has a place to begin. Our organizing is at all times drawing off generational work. Los Angeles performs a very necessary position in abolition conversations. We go all the best way again to George Jackson [the author of Soledad Brother], and to what got here earlier than him. The origin tales of the trendy dialog round abolition in some methods began with him. That generational lineage could be very contemporary right here.

Plus, the postmodern model of mass incarceration we see right this moment was first workshopped in L.A.: SWAT groups, the militarization of police, insurance policies like “three strikes,” gang databases and injunctions—the entire legacy of Daryl Gates [LAPD chief from 1978 to 1992], and previous to him William Parker [LAPD chief from 1950 to 1966].

However sure, the latest condensed coverage timeline began with us stopping the jail plan by way of the JusticeLA marketing campaign. They had been going to construct a number of jails. Between 2018 and 2020, we had been stopping all of it. We had been in a position to do this by way of grassroots energy, collective stress, and having an alternate imaginative and prescient. The Options to Incarceration Workgroup got here out of that.

Typically, once you put stress on a neighborhood authorities towards one thing they wish to do, they’ll say, “Properly, what are we imagined to do as a substitute? You guys are solely good at diagnosing the issue, not determining what to do.” 

We anticipated that and developed a really complete plan round what you would do as a substitute of increasing the most important jail system on the earth. We put collectively the Los Angeles County Decarceration Report, and we published two editions of that report. Once we did cease the jail plan—which was an enormous and profound win that nobody thought was potential, as a result of the enlargement plan had already been put in movement—the county moved ahead with a workgroup inviting all of the stakeholders to develop an agenda round what we do as a substitute of constructing these jails. And we had been prepared.

I don’t know whether or not their intentions with this workgroup had been good or not, but it surely truly grew to become a superb instance of how civic democracy can work in a participatory context. As a result of everyone got here to the desk—not simply us, not simply individuals from the group, [but opponents as well]. 

Paul Engler: After I have a look at the alternate options to incarceration program, I’m shocked by all of the teams and people which have signed on to it. It ranges all the best way from abolitionists to very mainstream individuals. 

Steppling: It speaks to the truth that we mobilized an even bigger base than anybody else. We basically overwhelmed the county with a essential mass of well-informed individuals. And we welcomed them to attempt to inform us the place we had been unsuitable. Each evaluation that we put forth, each demand that we put forth, we had vetted it. We knew that we needed to be accountable for the whole lot we had been saying.

Native governments attempt to use suppose tanks and the marketing consultant class to counter your imaginative and prescient. In L.A. County, they tried to do this with the RAND Company. However then RAND issued a study that echoed what we stated—which was that you would be able to reduce the jail inhabitants in half by way of complete diversion programming, and it’ll have higher public security outcomes.

In creating our imaginative and prescient, many people in the neighborhood had been in a position to attract on issues we knew had labored earlier than. For instance, I drew on my experiences from the mid-to-late Nineties, once we noticed a bunch of public well being and public security enhancements. Through the HIV disaster, loads of sources, comparatively talking, got here into the group by way of public well being grants. A few of them discovered their means into the palms of native community-based service suppliers, and loads of dynamic programming got here out of it. You had free clinics, complete intercourse ed, outreach to intercourse employees, and real hurt discount well being companies, the place individuals may go and get the care they wanted with out being judged. And also you had youth programming that saved my life.

I didn’t end college. The final grade that I completed was the tenth grade, and I used to be out alone for a lot of causes. I used to be capable of get a job on the L.A. free clinic to work with different “at-risk” youth. At sixteen or seventeen years outdated, I grew to become a licensed HIV counselor and labored with different younger individuals to develop our personal curriculum to show individuals in the neighborhood about security. We transitioned a few of that into doing neighborhood peace work, working intergenerationally to assist cease the violence. All these dynamic approaches had been occurring whether or not the federal government or the nonprofit well being funders realized it. And consequently, you had service clusters, you had drop-in facilities, you had scientific areas, you had housing packages, and also you had job coaching packages, all executed in a really unconditional means. It wasn’t punitive.

I noticed individuals coming by way of our packages having a lot success. However I additionally noticed that my relations and mates who had been going by way of the courtroom system had been having horrible outcomes. I spotted it was easy: those that had been dealing with the identical danger components as individuals getting incarcerated, however who had been getting therapy and companies in ways in which had been set other than the courtroom system, had been having success. These going by way of the courtroom system weren’t.

That was apparent to these of us who’ve been impacted by these methods by advantage of the place we’ve lived. We knew that the system of regulation enforcement didn’t care about success; it cared about punishment. It cared in regards to the mass corralling of individuals. In distinction, these public well being fashions care about security and well being.

When the Options to Incarceration course of began, we took a lot of that perspective and basically tried to power it into the workgroup’s suggestions. Within the final recommendations, a lot of what I simply shared with you is in actually the primary pages of the report. That was one thing we had been conspicuously capable of muscle in, as a result of there was no actual logic towards it. And the suggestions handed in full as a result of the county felt the stress from the group.

Paul Engler: It looks as if Dignity and Energy Now and the opposite progressive forces within the workgroup had been capable of get all of the civil-society teams to coalesce and have some alignment round your imaginative and prescient.

Steppling: That’s a great way of placing it. There was a coalescing between the civil-society forces and the abolitionists round a imaginative and prescient. And it was as a result of that imaginative and prescient was undeniably the appropriate path. There have been extra reasonable individuals within the room, and I at all times would say to them, “There’s a means ahead, and there’s a means backward, however there’s no means round this.” To be frank, if we had allow them to dictate the path, we might have gone again towards the middle. So we held a line: “If anyone tries to water down what we’re doing, we’ll maintain you accountable. As a result of now we have no alternative.”

We may solely do all that as a result of we had the 2 editions of our report laying out a really granular plan. Whether or not truthful or not, we needed to have solutions for the whole lot. So we spent loads of time growing that. The county used the time period “stakeholders,” however we might not have even been thought-about a stakeholder if we had not pressured our means into the room by advantage of being the one ones who truly designed one thing.

A part of how we had been capable of be a part of the governance course of was by having very intentional conversations internally. That is at all times a tough factor to do in an activist group—to say, “We’re not going to simply do the protest stuff that they anticipate us to do. We’re not going to simply shut it down.” We needed to say, “We’re constructing one thing. We’re creating one thing, and it needs to be collaborative.”

However there’s a distinction between collaboration and negotiation. We stated, “There is no such thing as a negotiation. We won’t settle for something however these calls for, however there will probably be collaboration, as a result of now we have to get there collectively.” The one means you obtain that’s by overwhelming them with power. Nevertheless it needs to be a constructive power. To play the within recreation, we let the county take credit score for a factor that we developed and wrote—the suggestions are actually primarily based off of our two decarceration reviews. You need the county to really feel a way of proprietary power, as a result of then they’re extra prone to carry it out.

The tag line for the coverage suggestions grew to become “Care First, Jails Final.” On the group aspect, we might have stated, “Care First, Jails By no means.” However in the event you learn the suggestions, it’s basically an abolitionist imaginative and prescient.

Thoughts you, we needed to be very tactful as a result of we additionally had the sheriffs within the room. We had the probation division within the room. I used to be typically the one requested to go sit on the desk with the sheriffs. That was a very attention-grabbing expertise, growing this alongside them.

Paul Engler: In loads of different cities, we see efforts to take small bites out of the problem of felony justice reform—for instance, bail reforms, or lowering sentences for nonviolent offenses, or therapy of juveniles, or “ban the box” campaigns. However your method appears to be totally different, in that it unifies these totally different points right into a single marketing campaign with a standard imaginative and prescient.

Steppling: I realized one thing a very long time in the past, once I stepped into this extra nonprofit, felony justice reform world. I encountered this professionalized model of advocacy, and I felt fairly horrified at just a few issues. One was the siloing of the problems. Saying, “OK, we’re simply doing bail reform. We’re not speaking about these different issues.”

We have now to inform individuals the reality. And the reality is that the problems are unified. One doesn’t exist with out the opposite. We will shut as many brick-and-mortar jails as we would like. However all we’re going to do is pave the best way for them to construct new jails if we don’t tie it to the insurance policies that feed jails. And the insurance policies that feed jails then need to be tied to the insurance policies that feed poverty, and so forth—in order that we’re together with not simply the financial justice dialog, but in addition one which talks about trauma, that talks about what household separation truly appears like and the disruption it causes in communities.

I’ve at all times felt just like the phrase “radical” could be a canard. A lot of what we demand is absolutely smart. It’s solely radical in relationship to the established order. And the established order is definitely what’s radical. A system of mass punishment and brutality—to me that’s radical; that’s the laborious line. 

I believe the abolitionist imaginative and prescient could be very smart, as a result of it’s about fashions of well-functioning civic life. It’s about precise security.

Mark Engler: In lots of conditions, progressives would possibly attempt to win a coverage change however depart it to the politicians to determine the way to fund it. Within the case of Measure J, you went instantly after the cash. How did you land on that technique?

Steppling: Measure J was a form of addendum to Options to Incarceration. It was developed to make sure—or not less than to strive to make sure—that they wouldn’t have the ability to use austerity as an excuse to not implement the suggestions.

Measure J was an actual stroke of genius on the a part of [Dignity and Power Now colleague Ivette Alé]. Ivette noticed a possibility: On the county stage in California, now we have a poll measure system. Often it requires signature gathering, which takes loads of money and time. However the County Board of Supervisors may also put one thing on the poll by advantage of a movement. And so we wrote a movement saying, “We wish L.A. County’s discretionary finances to be protected against regulation enforcement, to allow them to’t dip into it. And we would like 20 p.c of that discretionary finances, yearly in perpetuity, to go to funding the ATI suggestions.”

The supervisors got here again to us and had been like, “That’s insane.”

However we didn’t let up. We requested for 20 p.c understanding that they may say it was utterly inconceivable. However to us, the whole lot’s potential. We ended up getting 10 p.c of L.A. County’s discretionary finances right into a measure, which for us was nonetheless an enormous factor. On common, it’s about half a billion {dollars} per yr. And we acquired them to place it on the poll.

They didn’t do it as a result of they favored us. They did it as a result of we had them cornered, and since we had mobilized a essential mass. This was proper earlier than the pandemic. Even then, we had been anticipating them creating an austerity narrative to not fund the imaginative and prescient they simply agreed to. After which the individuals selling Measure J grew to become their very own coalition, as a result of teams such because the United Means reached out to us wanting to assist.

Mark Engler: Are you able to clarify why this discretionary pool of cash is so necessary?

Steppling: The insurance policies of how budgets work really feel very conspicuously designed to take company away from communities. It’s one of many ways in which they restrict democracy, or the facility of democratic mandates.

The county wished to do a jail enlargement that we argued would have value $3.5 billion. So early on in JusticeLA, we went to individuals and requested, “What may you do as a substitute with that $3.5 billion?” It’s at all times a superb train for individuals to consider what we should always truly be investing in.

However the actuality is that these billions that had been earmarked for the jail enlargement plan can not legally be taken and simply put into faculties, for instance. There are capital building legal guidelines in California which can be complicated and really tough to get info on. So far as public {dollars} are involved, it’s simpler in California to construct a jail than it’s to construct a library—and even to construct a stadium or a shopping center.

Discretionary cash on the county stage is likely one of the few locations the place there’s extra flexibility. It’s as much as the county to determine what to spend it on. A number of occasions, they don’t spend it in any respect. They simply attempt to develop a surplus. So we stated, “Out of that discretionary finances, you may simply discover the cash to fund Options to Incarceration.” The service clusters and scientific areas we want, the youth growth work that saved my life—all that may be funded with the discretionary finances.

Paul Engler: It looks as if loads of your work has not simply been about getting these modifications handed, however about getting them applied as soon as they’ve already been adopted as coverage. And that has concerned combating inertia and taking up authorities bureaucracies which can be not excited to hold out the modifications. 

Steppling: We’ve needed to deal rather a lot with the county CEO’s workplace. It’s a really bureaucratically oriented workplace that doesn’t appear to face the identical stress as politicians. In some methods, we allow them to off the hook for about six months once we had been embedded on the within—as a result of we thought we had been working with them in good religion to develop the ins and outs of how the coverage was going to be applied. After which when it was time to implement it, we noticed that they didn’t wish to. This included not solely Measure J, but in addition issues like closing Males’s Central Jail, or implementing our mannequin for impartial pretrial companies that don’t depend on regulation enforcement. They’re dragging their ft on that now, too. 

You encounter limitations in native authorities the place they’re afraid to do issues that go towards how they’ve been educated to manage. It’s exterior of their consolation zone, exterior of how they’ve been taught to do that. They agree with us that Measure J is nice, but there’s nonetheless inertia. Generally we work with them to engineer issues completely, after which they nonetheless don’t do it.

Working in good religion on the within labored rather well with the Options to Incarceration suggestions. With implementation, it didn’t work as effectively. To me, that has to do with the truth that our exterior recreation acquired diluted a bit.

There’s that nice saying, “Don’t confuse entry with affect.” Upon getting constant, efficient entry to the within, generally people get confused. And that’s the place loads of stuff goes unsuitable. Simply since you’re inside doesn’t imply shit. The within recreation is just so useful. You must at all times have a powerful presence on the surface. And that’s the place I come from, politically.

Paul Engler: Should you had been to take inventory of the belongings you’ve received and attempt to describe them for individuals exterior of Los Angeles, what would you say?

Steppling: The truth that we stopped the jail plan in lower than a yr is superb—not to mention that we developed the visions that at the moment are in place. Options to Incarceration is in place. Our imaginative and prescient for pretrial companies is authorised. Measure J handed by an enormous margin. An earlier poll measure—Measure R, giving subpoena energy to the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Fee [in investigating complaints against the Sheriff’s Department]—handed by greater than 70 p.c. We’re doing work round coroner accountability, and an enormous report simply got here out from UCLA. I may go on and on. It’s virtually like there have been too many wins for us to even articulate.

After which there’s the place our minds are at day in and day trip. I do know that once we speak to activists, loads of occasions it’s solely adverse, as a result of they speak about their frustrations. I don’t really feel that means; I don’t really feel adverse about any of this. I strive to verify I’m taking a look at the whole lot truthfully, neither glass half empty or glass half full.

For me it’s at all times, “How can we guarantee that we’re politically evolving, each drawing on historical past and in anticipation of what’s coming? We’ve encountered the constraints of 1 form of collaborative relationship with native authorities. What new methods will we develop to make that collaboration higher, whereas additionally reminding ourselves that the surface has to nonetheless be essentially the most strong power in all of this?”

A number of the people who I respect essentially the most get slowed down on the within generally. And it’s as a result of they actually wish to make it work. It’s simple to overlook that the one motive we received within the first place was that we overwhelmed them from the surface. The within recreation solely exists due to the surface recreation.

Mark Engler is a author primarily based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. Paul Engler is founding director of the Heart for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Momentum Training. They’re co-authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books), and they are often reached by way of

Analysis help supplied by Akin Olla and Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.

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