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Measure J Appears To Pass As Part Of LA County's Criminal Justice Reform Wave

(Illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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L.A. County voters appear to have passed Measure J, which would create a powerful criminal justice reform fund that supporters say was unimaginable even a few months ago.

In late July -- less than two months after police officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd and the first protesters took to the streets in L.A. -- the county's Board of Supervisors put a measure on the ballot that would permanently require the county to spend 10 percent of its general fund budget on alternatives to incarceration, such as housing, mental health care, youth development and criminal justice diversion programs.

As of Wednesday night's update, approval of Measure J outnumbered opposition by more than 400,000 votes. There remain a little more than half-a-million vote-by-mail ballots to count, but it's highly unlikely to change the apparent outcome.

"Without a doubt, Measure J wouldn't even exist, and it wouldn't be possible right now, if we had not seen and experienced all the things that happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the millions of folks marching," said Eunisses Hernandez, co-chair of the Yes On J campaign and co-executive director of La Defensa, a local jail reform organization.

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Measure J -- the "J" stands for justice, according to Hernandez -- was backed by a broad coalition of activists, Democratic groups, civil rights organizations and elected officials, including four of the five members of the county's Board of Supervisors.

Opponents included Supervisor Kathryn Barger, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, unions representing sheriff's deputies, and District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who appears to be losing her re-election bid to George Gascón.

Activists are describing their victory a pro-criminal justice reform wave sweeping L.A. County and, with the defeat of Proposition 20, the state.

Isaac Bryan, executive director of the UCLA Black Policy Project and co-chair of the Yes on J campaign, said L.A. County has been moving towards criminal justice reform for years.

In August 2019, the county's Board of Supervisors voted tocancel plans for a new jail. In March,voters passed Measure R, which expanded the powers of the watchdog agency that oversees the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. And in late September, the supervisors directed staff to develop a plan tooverhaul the county's 911 dispatch systemso that health and de-escalation experts, not armed police, will respond to emergency calls involving people experiencing mental health crises.

"The county has been moving this direction, but to do something this transformative, I do think it took the events of this year," Bryan said. "It gave us a policy window for change that we had to move on."

The money for Measure J comes out of the county's general fund budget, and cannot be given to the Sheriff's Department, the District Attorney's office, the courts nor the Probation Department. Although the measure doesn't specify where, exactly, the money will come from,it's likely to mean cutting some funding for the Sheriff's Department, which Sheriff Villanueva has previously said he strongly opposes.

Hernandez credited Measure J's supporters for framing the issue in a way voters would support.

"A lot of folks trying to move dollars out of law enforcement are calling for defunding police, but that doesn't really fly with most people in our communities," she said. "People want to feel safe. If you say you want to defund the police, then it's like, Who's gonna come when I call 911?"

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Instead of focusing on taking money away from law enforcement, Hernandez said Measure J focused on transferring funds into programs that address systemic racism.

Measure J, Hernandez said, "is a model that the rest of the nation needs to look at."

Next Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to create an advisory committee to suggest where and how to spend the money. The Coalition of County Unions, which represents employees of L.A. County, previously filed a lawsuit over Measure J. However, a judge ruled the measurecould move forward.

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