Can We Really Do Alternatives to Jail in Los Angeles?

EASTSIDER-Recently, two important measures were voted in to help provide alternatives to jail in Los Angeles County

The question is, can they really be implemented? 

Measure R and Measure J 

Measure R passed first, back in March. It dealt with repurposing about three billion plus dollars originally slated for rebuilding the Men’s Central Jail, into a mix of jail alternatives such as mental health programs, diversion efforts, and the like. 

It also gave the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission the authority to issue subpoenas to the Sheriff over civilian and inmate complaints. For further details, you can read a pre-election article here.  

The more recent Measure J was passed on the November ballot. Essentially, it sets aside 10% of the unallocated County Budget to be used for alternatives to incarceration. And also prohibits the law enforcement system of the County from poaching that 10%. A recent CityWatch article on it can be found here

Reality Hits the Measures 

The Commission is comprised of nine (9) Members, and its mission is on the website

“The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission is authorized by Chapter 3.79 of the Los Angeles County Code. The purpose of the Commission is to improve public transparency and accountability with respect to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, by providing robust opportunities for community engagement, ongoing analysis and oversight of the department's policies, practices, procedures, and advice to the Board of Supervisors, the Sheriff's Department and the public.” 

While the Commission was established in 2016, there has not been a lot of cooperation from the Sheriff for actually doing anything. In fact, as of the date of this article, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has refused to participate in Commission meetings, and has refused to show up after being subpoenaed. That matter is still in litigation. 

As for funding, it’s good and bad. The three billion plus dollars repurposed under Measure R is still available but has not been touched because the Commission is currently developing a Comprehensive Public Safety Reinvestment Plan. I believe that was a part of its charge under the Measure. 

As for the 10% budget set aside of recently passed Measure J, I don’t personally think that there’s going to be any funds this fiscal year. The reason is simple -- the Trump Administration has left State and Local governments on their own, and has not come through with any reimbursement money to pay for all the mandatory activities they dumped on local government during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

That leaves local government without the resources to recover the lost revenue, and will likely result in furloughs, layoffs, and/or cutbacks to satisfy the requirement they have for balanced budgets. 

Thank you very much President Trump. 

On a positive note, the County Board of Supervisors has hired the RAND Corporation to conduct a research study of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, and their subgroups. You can find a link to the Study here, but a final report won’t be available until sometime in 2021. 

The Civilian Oversight Commissioners 

First, a political note. If the Commission is going to be effective, it will be through the work of the appointed Commissioners. Their challenge is that the Sheriff is opposed to them as is most of the law enforcement community, the Board of Supervisors are knee deep in you know what with COVID-19 and associated budget challenges, and the general public has no clue as to the Commission, its role in Measures R and J, or much of anything  beyond the fact that the two Measures passed. If that. 

That means the 9 Commissioners have to do the heavy lifting or nothing will happen. And you will be unsurprised that almost everyone I know has no clue about the Commission, the Commissioners, or what -- if anything -- is happening. 

So I’m going to take a shot at trying to expand public awareness, as well as to provide information on the Commissioners, their backgrounds, and how to contact them directly. In that vein, I have to point out that the website is not helpful.  

The names of the Commissioners, along with the core scope and achievements of the Commissioners, are buried on the website under a header called, “Our Work,” which you can find here

Their names are: 

Lael Rubin                   - Chair and former Deputy District Attorney 

Robert C. Bonner        - former U.S. Attorney and DEA Administrator 

Patti Giggans               - Executive Director of Peace Over Violence 

James P. Harris           - former Sheriff’s Department lieutenant 

Sean Kennedy             - Executive Director of Loyola’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy 

Priscilla Ocen              - Associate Professor Loyola Law School 

Xavier Thompson        - President of the Baptist Ministers Conference (and Senior Pastor of the Southern Saint Paul Church) 

Casimiro U. Tolentino - former CA State Administrative Law Judge


Their biographies are linked into the web page and are worth a read. 

What’s Next 

As a recovering union organizer from the days before most of CityWatch readers were even born, I know one thing. You have to know how to organize a group around a common goal (here alternatives to incarceration), grow that group including the groups that they may already be in, and implement a plan of action. 

In this case, the plan is simple. The Sheriff, and most of the law enforcement community like District Attorneys are opposed to real alternatives to incarceration for the simple reason of protecting their own turf/budget. Not to mention a certain amount of serious cynicism from having done their jobs for a long time. 

That means that community action and input are going to be key to the Civilian Oversight Commission being able to successfully complete their mandate. It’s no different than other politics -- when the Commission gives a report and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, somebody has to count to 5. The more grassroots people behind the Commission, the higher the likelihood that the Board will act to adopt. 

The Takeaway

So, if you’re a member of groups with an interest in actually doing something to provide alternatives to jail, here’s your chance.  Like Reform LA Jails, Showing Up For Racial Justice, Action LA 2020, Philanthropy Action Fund, Re-Imagine Los Angeles. Or Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the LA Progressive, a progressive democratic club or just plain Angelenos who are interested. 

To help you, the Commission currently has thirteen (13) Ad Hoc Committees! So it should be pretty simple to find one or more that you are interested in. They are listed below, along with the Commissioner taking the lead for each Committee: 

Bail Reform (Priscilla Ocan)                       Budget (Hernan Vera

COVID-19 (Lael Rubin)                             Family Assistance Program (Patti Giggans

Immigration (Hernan Vera)                       Inmate Welfare Fund (Casimiro Tolentino)   

Mental Evaulation (Patti Giggans)               Measure R (Priscilla Ocan

Prison Rape Elimination (Patti Giggans)       Resolutions (Patti Giggans)   

Secret Deputy Subgroups (Lael Rubin)        Subpoena Process (Herman Vera)   

Use of Force/Patrol (Xavier Thompson)


You won’t find this information on the website -- I discovered it in the November Agenda of the Commission. So, I urge you to take a look at the various committees, and reach out to the lead Commissioner for the ones you are interested in. It’s a pretty amazing list. 

According to Staff, the best way to get in touch with any of the Commissioners directly is to call the main number (213-315-5678). The person who answers the call will relay your message to the appropriate Commissioner. 

To get all this off the ground, consider following these articles, find others interested in creating political pressure on those opposed to taking real action. Hook up with the Commission, ask what you can do as a person or a group. Heck, if you need help, email me using tony.butka@gmail.com and I will see what I can do. 

Stay tuned. We will be featuring the individual Commissioners in future postings, recognizing that they are not “employees,” just per diem appointed Commissioners. For them to have any real juice, they need grassroots support from you and me. The more the merrier. 

If we do nothing, it’s just another Commission that the law enforcement community and the politicians will move to the back burner. 

We can do this!


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.