In response to the unthinkable challenges our country has faced since 2020, millions of people across the country have mobilized over the last two years to make their voices heard at the ballot box and advance social justice and equity. During this period, voters have ushered in a new Presidential Administration, new control of the United States Senate, and community-focused candidates and ballot measures in elections nationwide. Once in office, these newly elected officials began drafting policy and legislation consistent with the needs and demands amplified by their constituents. Policymakers passed legislation at the federal, state, and local levels; new budgets emerged like The California Comeback Plan State and Los Angeles County Care First, which were grounded in equity and justice.
A New Vision for Public Safety
In many ways, the collective trauma and activism that emerged from this period led to some of the most progressive policy and social justice initiatives since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Among these initiatives, reforming the criminal legal system and reimagining public safety were central to the movement and the futures our communities envisioned. The standout changes that emerged from this push included legislation supporting individuals involved in the legal system, accountability for police officers who abuse their positions by committing acts of violence, the election of reform-oriented District Attorneys, and the Measure J: Reimagine LA initiative.
Measure J — now known as the Care First Community Investment (CFCI) in the implementation stage — was a ballot measure to amend the County Charter to permanently assign at least 10% of the unrestricted portions of the Los Angeles County budget to be used for services and interventions for those who are system-involved or are likely to become involved in the criminal system. The legislation was born from the “Defund the Police” movement and proposed an alternate way for the county to use its additional resources to care for the community. Measure J anticipated $900M in resources for the community to allocate to youth development, job training, small business development, supportive housing services, and alternatives to incarceration.
From the beginning, the ballot measure had heavy opposition, primarily from law enforcement unions that poured over $3.5 million into opposition campaigns and efforts to tell a story of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles if the county approved the measure. However, advocates and community leaders still prevailed, and thanks to strong support from organizations like the Liberty Hill Foundation and the United Way, Measure J passed with 57% voter support. It was highly regarded as an alternative to criminal system spending that other cities within California and beyond could replicate in addressing the community demands for reimagining public safety.
The initiative was placed in the Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) department within the Los Angeles County CEO’s office, which included the observation of the CFCI Advisory Committee. To this day, CFCI has remained under constant attacks from the law enforcement community and recently lost a critical court decision that determined that limiting the LA Board of Supervisors’ ability to spend county funds was unconstitutional. While that litigation is ongoing, the Board of Supervisors has agreed to support the spirit of the legislation in its budgetary process. The amount of funding, while still designed to meet the needs of the original measure, is very different from the $900M initially expected and now totals only $187M, with $87M coming from one-time funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Highlights of the current funding plan include:
$42 million to support the closure of Men’s Central Jail
$8 million for community-based pretrial services in highly impacted communities, replacing law-enforcement supervision and pretrial incarceration for eligible individuals
$20.9 million to support youth at risk of involvement with the justice system or already involved in the justice system
$16 million for housing and related services to meet a variety of needs, including support for people experiencing homelessness with complex health needs, people with substance use disorder and at-risk and system-impacted youth, and transition-age youth
$15 million to support residents returning to the community after incarceration
$9 million in support for people experiencing substance use disorder and to prevent drug-related harm and death
While the funding amount creates a level of concern for the authors and proponents of CFCI, even more concerning is the instability of the CFCI initiative. As it stands, participation in the CFCI is at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors, which does not guarantee future funding.
But what changed in our cultural landscape for this measure — which was at the forefront of reimagining public safety — to lose traction and have its scope limited?
Change in Public Perception
The history of our country shows that any advancement in social or racial justice has always been followed by backlash equal to or greater than those advancements. For example, we saw that emancipation led to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement led to the re-emergence of confederate imagery, and the election of Barack Obama led to the Tea Party and the” truther” movement. Expectedly, the historic racial and social justice advances achieved during the past two years have also been met with backlash across the spectrum: the insurrection on January 6th, the rise in BIPOC hate crimes, the ongoing assault on voting rights, the unprecedented wave of anti-trans legislation emerging across the nation, the pending Supreme Court decision regarding women’s rights, among many troubling examples. The responses to criminal system reform specifically have also been organized and consistent.
Law enforcement unions and other opposition have engaged in a campaign depicting the result of reforms as a lawless, unsafe environment where those committing crimes are not held accountable, and everyone should be fearful. While crime rates have risen in several categories in Los Angeles, the false narrative that these groups have fabricated claims that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of crime due to lower police budgets, anti-police protests, and soft-on-crime prosecutors.
In reality, the increase in crime is a national phenomenon, occurring in both red and blue states under both liberal and conservative District Attorneys. Additionally, statistics do not reveal significant changes in prosecution levels that would support the opposition’s claims. Also, the enactment of many of these reforms and the distribution of funds to qualified organizations have not yet had enough time to impact the system.
Rates of criminal prosecution for felonies have stayed nearly the same from 2012 to 2021 (approximately 58%), with the 2021 rate being slightly higher.
Misdemeanor prosecutions have reduced from 86% to 43%. Still, they are related to low-level offenses, often committed by those experiencing addiction or homelessness, and include infractions like disturbing the peace, simple drug possession, loitering, and public intoxication.
Interestingly, there is a significant drop in law enforcement solving violent crimes, specifically homicides solved by the sheriff’s department dropping from 71% in 2019 to 40% in 2021.
Nevertheless, public perception has been affected by this fear campaign. The most recent election is a clear indication that crime is at the top of voters’ concerns, with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin being recalled even though statistically, crime has not increased and, in some cases, has even declined. Tough-on-crime mayoral candidates have risen to the forefront in the Los Angeles Mayoral race. Recent state and local budgets indicate increases in traditional public safety spending and fewer care initiatives than last year’s budgets. The totality of public perception and the long-term fragility of Measure J/CFCI certainly place this landmark legislation in future peril.
Contesting the Changing Narrative of Public Safety
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King Jr
SoCal Grantmakers has been fortunate to feature both the authors of Measure J and the foundations that supported the legislation in our past Public Policy Conference programming. In 2021, Eunisses Hernandez (co-author of Measure J) and Julio Marcial from the Liberty Hill Foundation shared with our members the implementation plan and the effect that Measure J could have within California and the country. This year, co-author of the legislation and current California State Assemblyman Isaac Bryan shared a very different message: “I’m hearing that it’s a scary time. I’m hearing that we’re going backward. I’m hearing that there’s a return to policies and narratives of the 1980s and 1990s. I’m here to tell you that it’s not the time to retreat and roll back. It’s time to double down and invest.” Shane Goldsmith, SCG Board Member & CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, shared a similar message regarding CFCIin her remarks at the Liberty Hill Upton Sinclair Gala, where she implored individuals and philanthropy to continue the support of the initiative by investing in its complete and successful implementation.
Philanthropy can remain involved in supporting Measure J/CFCI by connecting with the Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) department within the Los Angeles County CEO’s office and participating in the community meetings or advocating for the legislation through the Re-Imagine L.A. County Coalition. Funders also have an opportunity to fund culture change and contest the dominant narratives that reinforce inequity and limit our efforts. The meaningful and time-consuming work that advocates, funders, and community members have put into the passage of Measure J and the sustainability of this funding should not be lost to those inciting fear and panic to manipulate voters. We can help bend the arc and expedite the move towards justice by working with government, nonprofits, and community activists.