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On criminal justice reforms, L.A. County should look forward, not back

Today, Californians of pretty much all walks of life agree: The state’s criminal justice system has been broken for decades. For at least 20 years, it was commonplace for lawmakers to churn out “tough” crime policy that drove prison populations and budgets up and starved investments in crime prevention and rehabilitation. Excessive imprisonment and prison spending delivered high recidivism rates and destabilized communities far more than they delivered any public safety benefit.

Taxpayers now spend billions on a behemoth set of criminal justice bureaucracies that are largely ill-equipped to effectively stop crime cycles or prevent crime in the first place.

Voters are well aware of this structural problem, and overwhelming majorities approved various recent justice reforms to begin changing course. There is still a long way to go.

Despite strong data on what works better than incarceration-first policies — community outreach and law enforcement partnerships; risk-based graduated sanctions; supervised probation combined with substance abuse treatment; behavioral health courts; and more — most justice systems remain stuck in the dysfunctional practices of the past.

There is perhaps no greater responsibility of local government than protecting public safety. Yet, too often, public officials are quick to respond to public safety problems by questioning justice reforms, instead of completing what those reforms started: the long-overdue task of replacing the broken justice system with evidenced-based community safety solutions.

The recent proposal from Los Angeles County Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn is familiar in that regard. On Tuesday,the Board of Supervisors will deliberate on their proposal to establish a commission tasked with examining the impacts of recent justice reforms on public safety in Los Angeles County. namely those enacted under Propositions 47 and 57 and Assembly Bill 109. Undercutting recent reforms, instead of addressing decades-old dysfunctional and imbalanced approaches to safety, is a missed opportunity.

Public safety challenges in Los Angeles are real and must be addressed. However, the question is not what’s wrong with reforms attempting to correct problems, but what the county can do to effectively effectuate recent reforms — and go even farther.

Looking beyond tradition, officials will find that community leaders and crime experts alike have known for many years what works. Powerful and effective programs like the Watts Gang Task Force, where law enforcement and community street intervention teams work together to address violence at the neighborhood level; or the Community Collaborative Court in Compton that combines case management with treatment and court supervision; or The Long Beach Trauma Recovery Center that’s providing wrap around support for crime victims and their families, reducing crime and empowering communities in the process.

Scaling these types of programs, as well as investing in the county’s substance abuse and mental health treatment infrastructure, and transitional housing and job training for people exiting the justice system are all strategies that need immediate attention. The need to scale what works and fill gaps in the community infrastructure has been apparent for many years.

In addition to asking a different set of questions, local officials should seek to bring together a broader set of stakeholders. While law enforcement is key, as the best leaders in law enforcement often say, law enforcement alone cannot solve public safety problems. Community leaders, crime survivors, formerly incarcerated people, and leaders in public health, substance abuse recovery and economic development must be elevated and enrolled if we are serious about solutions.

When the Board of Supervisors meets on Tuesday, instead of seeking to return to the failed policies of the past, a more productive conversation would be focused on how to effectuate the reforms that have already been adopted, and how to finally invest in a crime prevention and treatment infrastructure that can create the safe and healthy communities we all desire.

Lenore Anderson is executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a non-profit organization based in Oakland.

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