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Reimagining L.A. County: Shifting County Budget Priorities to Communities and Incarceration Alternatives

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

By Erika Cervantes

On November 3rd, Los Angeles County voters will cast their vote on the county-wide ballot measure, Re-Imagine LA. Listed on the ballot as Measure J or better known as Re-Imagine LA, would reinvest hundreds of millions of dollars directly into community and alternatives to incarceration through a County charter amendment, creating permanent change. The measure calls for an allocation of no less than ten percent of the County’s locally generated unrestricted revenues in the general fund to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice through community investment and alternatives to incarceration.  

Background on Re-Imagine LA

In the onset of local and nationwide protests against police brutality and the racial inequities faced throughout history by the Black community, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has introduced a list of several county-wide measures supporting efforts and policies to address racial inequity and create economic opportunity and housing stability for marginalized communities. On July 21st, to structurally shift the budget priorities of the County, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Supervisor Hilda Solis, co-authored the motion “Re-Imagining L.A. County: Shifting Budget Priorities to Revitalize Under-Resourced and Low-Income Communities,” initiating the first vote of three required by the Board to place the motion on the November 3rd county-wide ballot. 

The idea behind the motion was developed by a coalition of advocates, community organizations, and County residents calling for divestment from incarceration and policing instead of increasing investments in the health and economic wellness of marginalized people. The Re-imagine L.A. County Coalition states that for decades, the Los Angeles County’s budget has directed money away from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities and allocated it in ways that in effect, negatively impacted those same communities. The coalition has also stated that the impacts on these communities have only been exacerbated by the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. The people in L.A. County, especially those working minimum wage jobs, seniors, young people trying to learn new skills, people without mental health care, and those excluded from stable housing, are being crushed by the pandemic and a status quo budget that continues to deny them resources and opportunities.


Racial and Economic Inequities Across Los Angeles County

Recent studies have demonstrated the disproportionate impact on the Black community throughout the County, where Black people comprise only nine percent of the population but make up 34 percent of the people experiencing homelessness, and 41 percent of those diagnosed with a mental health condition in jail. The budget for juvenile halls and camps was over $397 million in the fiscal year 2019-2020 for the county. With an average daily population of about 900 youth, the Probation Department spends almost $450,000 per year per person in a camp of a hall. Likewise, according to the Department Auditor-controller report for the fiscal year 2019-2020, the cost of incarcerating people with mental health needs in L.A. County is over $206 a day. The County’s daily pretrial population, people who have not been convicted of any crime but cannot afford to post bail, costs the county nearly $500,000 per year. 

According to a report by the County Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) and the RAND Corporation, since its establishment in 2015, ODR has safely diverted over 5,0000 people from County jails to more appropriate and effective settings, where individuals can get treatment and avoid future involvement with the criminal justice system. 

Racial and economic inequities throughout the County also demonstrate a need for financial and deep investments. For example, according to a 2016 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, White households in the L.A. metropolitan area have a median net worth of $350,000, while in comparison, households with Mexican heritage and Black households have a median net worth of $3,500 and $4,000, respectively. The lack of affordable housing presents a separate challenge. In the L.A. Metro area, 200,000 units that rented for less than $1,000 per month were lost in the ten years between 2008 and 2018, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. In the same period, more than half a million units with rents $1,400 per month, were developed. According to a 2019 report released by the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing and the California Housing Partnership, renters in Los Angeles County would have to earn $47.52 per hour – more than three times the local minimum wage- to afford the $2,471 median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment. 

To address racial injustice, over-reliance on law enforcement interventions, limited economic opportunity, health disparities, and housing instability, the Board of Supervisors voted for the residents of Los Angeles County to decide on structurally shifting the budget priorities of the County through a County Charter Amendment. 


Proposed Changes to County Charter

L.A. County’s $34.9 billion budget comes from a combination of local, state, and federal sources. The locally generated unrestricted revenue is known as “Net County Costs” (NCC) and totals about $8.8 billion of the County’s total budget. The County’s F.Y. 2020- 2021 final approved budget allocates 42% ($3.7 billion) of NCC for law enforcement, and the legal system uses. 

If passed in November by a simple majority, the amendment will annually allocate in the County’s budget no less than ten percent of the County’s locally generated unrestricted revenues in the general fund to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice through community investment and alternatives to incarceration. These funds will also be earmarked and prohibited from being used for carceral systems and law enforcement agencies. The amendment includes language that will allow the incremental phasing in of the 10 percent of unrestricted revenues from the general fund over three years, beginning July 1st, 2021, and incrementally growing to the full ten percent set-aside by June 30th, 2024. The amendment also provides protection in the event of a county-wide fiscal emergency, as declared by the Board of Supervisors, the Board has the ability to reduce the total set-aside amount through a four-fifths vote. 

As mentioned, the measure will amend the L.A. County Charter and permanently allocate 10 percent of existing locally controlled revenues for direct community investment and alternatives to incarceration. The funds would be distributed for the following primary purposes: 

  1. Direct Community Investment
    • Community-based youth development programs
    • Job training and jobs to low-income residents focusing on jobs that support the implementation of the “Alternatives to Incarceration” workgroup recommendations as presented to the County Board of Supervisors on March 10th, 2020, especially construction jobs for the expansion of affordable and supportive housing, restorative care villages, and decentralized system of care. 
    • Create access to capital for small minority-owned businesses, with a focus on Black-owned businesses.
    • Provide rent assistance, housing vouchers, and accompanying supportive services to those at risk of losing their housing or without stable housing. 
    • Provide capital funding for transitional housing, affordable housing, supportive housing, and restorative care villages with priority for shovel-ready projects. 
  2. Alternatives to Incarceration
    • Community-based restorative justice programs. 
    • Pretrial non-custody services and treatment.
    • Community-based health services, health promotion, counseling, wellness and prevention programs, and mental health and substance use disorder services. 
    • Non-custodial diversion and reentry programs, including housing and services. 


The set-aside of ten percent shall not be used for any carceral system or law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles County Superior Courts, or Los Angeles County Probation Department, including redistribution of funds to those entities. 



Supporters of Re-Imagine L.A. argue that the measure is a long-overdue move toward justice and equality needed by the County. They argue that only through a charter amendment will the County be permanently committed to investing in its Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities for the long-term. The Re-Imagine L.A. County Coalition, the primary driver and sponsor of the measure, is made up of a diverse group of issue-based advocates and community organizations with a broad spectrum of concentrations including housing and homelessness, criminal justice, economic justice, health, labor, and racial justice, and others, who have been fighting for massive changes to the County’s budget on an annual basis. The group has grown to include a list of 97 organizations, including the Advancement Project of California, United Way of Greater L.A., L.A. Family Housing, La Defensa, UCLA School of Law, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). According to the Re-Imagine L.A. County Coalition, the exact amount spent on community investment and alternatives to incarceration is currently closer to 1% rather than 10%. 



Opponents of this ballot measure argue that the series of motions by the Board of Supervisors were hastily introduced without planning or public notice and that by allowing voters to decide County budget allocations, the measure violates the California Constitution and state law which prohibit the supervisors from delegating away the Board’s control of the budget. Union groups such as the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, and the Coalition of Probation Unions, stated that the supervisors violated an ordinance that requires county officials to consult with labor unions and also to give unions 90-days notice of any change to the charter. In demonstrating their opposition towards the charter amendment, the union groups stated they intend to take legal action regarding the procedural and legality of the measure. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva also demonstrated his opposition to the charter amendment ballot measure, stating that the title of the measure can be deceptive to voters and doesn’t offer language on the possible effects, should the measure pass, to other County departments including the County Sheriff’s Department. Additional arguments in opposition to the charter amendment during the Board of Supervisors meetings included potential job losses throughout L.A. County departments, fiscal inflexibility, and county bond ratings- all of which were addressed by the Board. 


Funders interested in learning more about Re-Imagine LA, can access the slide deck below presented during a Funders Call for Re-Imagine LA on August 20, 2020. 

For questions or comments, please contact Erika Cervantes at [email protected].

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