Hoping to strike a balance between public outcry over rising crime rates and statewide criminal justice reforms, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve the formation of a blue ribbon commission to dig deeper into how best to rehabilitate low-level criminals while also protect communities.
The 3-to-0 vote to approve the commission came after some soul-searching among some supervisors who heard almost 60 people speak at the Board meeting downtown to express views for and against the need for a commission on public safety. Most in favor included mayors, police chiefs, and businesses leaders from across the county’s 88 cities who said while such reforms such as AB 109, as well as voter-approved propositions 47 and 57, were forged with intention to save money by alleviating overcrowded prisons, there were no safety nets in place to steer low-level offenders into drug treatment, anger management and mental health services. As a result, they say drug use, homelessness, and related crimes all have increased.
“While developed with good intentions, the legislation may have created unintended consequences and places our first-responders at risk,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. “We have an obligation to be the best we could be. It’s not about politics but about public safety.”
But those opposed to it included members of community programs that help former offenders with jobs and education, such as the well-known Homeboy Industries. Members of such groups cautioned the Board that forming a commission that favored law enforcement tips the balance away from criminal justice reform.
“We believe we should be looking forward not backward,” said Alex Johnson, the managing director for Californians for Safety and Justice, the group behind the creation of Proposition 47. Known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,
Proposition 47 allows six nonviolent felonies — such as simple drug possession or petty theft under $950 — to be changed to misdemeanors on old criminal records. But critics charge without the threat of incarceration, too many people are skipping drug treatment.
“Public safety challenges in L.A. County are real and must be addressed, but it is irresponsible to blame everything but the weather on reforms,” Johnson acknowledged, but said the blue ribbon commission is not the right solution.
“(This commission) will be non-productive,” he said. “Reforms like (Proposition 47) are more popular than ever.”
The seed for the formation of the commission on public safety formed back in February, when Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn called for an investigation into the fatal shooting of Whittier police officer Keith Boyer by suspect Michael Christopher Mejia. Mejia, 26, is a known gang member who also is suspected of shooting a relative before gunning down Boyer. In and out of prison for several crimes, Mejia was released and under parole when he shot Boyer. His release was seen by the public as a breach in the provisions of AB 109, an early release initiative signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011.
• RELATED STORY: LA County counted on Prop 47 to save money. It hasn’t yet
Barger and Hahn introduced the motion to form the blue ribbon commission to explore “solutions to restore the lives of the individuals entangled in the justice system.”
The commission would be made up of members of law enforcement as well as business leaders, but after hearing public criticism about the lack of involvement of community groups, Hahn and Supervisor Solis amended the motion, to include community leaders.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who abstained, had hoped the board would postpone the vote until next week to consider the testimony raised. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was absent Tuesday.
But Barger said the commission was needed, not to favor law enforcement, but to start collecting data on arrests and on those released early.
“The motion is not intended to divide but to unite those with common goals,” Barger said. “Rehabilitation works when people are required to access them. We have people getting arrested and re-arrested.”
Hahn said while criminal justice reform was needed because of overcrowded prisons, she was disappointed with the lack of transparency from the state into who is being released and if the system is working.
The investigation into Mejia, who was under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, remains classified and confidential and has not been released to the public, Hahn said.
“I think the public has a right to see these findings, and I for one believe we should release it,” Hahn said. “I know it may be a more complicated… but we should not be afraid of the truth. Both the classified report and result of this blue ribbon commission should be made public.”
Probation chief Terri McDonald told the board she could not comment on why the report is confidential because it was part of a criminal investigation.