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Righting the Wrongs of the War on Drugs

By Mark Ridley-Thomas

Supervisor, Los Angeles County

I am, and will remain, concerned that legalizing the sale of marijuana could be detrimental to the health and safety of vulnerable neighborhoods, leading to unintended consequences that cannot be offset by overblown estimates of the profit that commercialization might bring. Still, I recognize that Prop. 64 offers an opportunity to address at least some of the profound injustices perpetrated by the War on Drugs, especially against people of color.

Even though marijuana use is fairly consistent across race, blacks have been four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. And their punishment persisted long past the time they spent behind bars, because having a conviction on one’s record made it difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, obtain housing, secure student loans, earn a professional license, etc.

All of those missed opportunities had lasting repercussions, sometimes felt across generations. It also further widened the racial divide, socially and economically.

Prop. 64 is not without flaws but nevertheless carries tremendous potential for righting the wrongs of the past, basically by giving people a chance to start over. It retroactively reduced certain convictions – felonies became misdemeanors, misdemeanors became infractions – and dismissed some convictions altogether. For youth, it also allowed court records to be destroyed, giving them a clean slate.

Many people, however, remain unaware that they are entitled to legal relief under Prop. 64. Others are deterred by the cumbersome process, which can include having to hire a lawyer to petition the court.

We have an obligation to help them.

Together with Supervisor Hilda Solis, I have authored a motion to create a plan for facilitating the resentencing of minor marijuana convictions in Los Angeles County. The Office of Cannabis Management would collaborate with various county departments and agencies, as well as the courts and community stakeholders, to develop strategies that are timely, accessible, and cost-effective.

The motion also seeks to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, particularly racial disparities in law enforcement. A disturbing pattern has emerged in jurisdictions that legalized marijuana. In Alaska, for example, overall marijuana-related arrests fell post-legalization but blacks were still arrested 10 times more often than whites. In Washington D.C. and Colorado, the ratio was closer to 4:1 and 3:1.

Throughout my career, I have made criminal justice reform a priority. I have worked to improve relations between law enforcement and the public they are sworn to protect and serve; to facilitate resentencing under Prop. 47; to create diversion programs for the mentally ill, who should not be in jail in the first place; and to support reentry programs aimed at helping ex-offenders become productive members of society after serving their time.

Too many lives have already been upended, and communities adversely affected, by actions that, as of New Year’s Day 2018, are no longer considered crimes in California. If we, as a society, value justice and improving lives, then we must make the most of correcting wrong-headed criminal justice practices of the past and promote a future that is defined by enlightened accountability.

A Roadmap for Probation Reform

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion to accept the final recommendations of a study that evaluated ways to reform Los Angeles County’s troubled Probation Department. It endorsed the findings of the LA County Probation Governance Study, which was the culmination of 18 months of work by Resource Development Associates (RDA), a consultant team that included local and national experts in justice reform.

The commissioned report made seven primary recommendations:

  • Develop a uniform mission statement, instituted to advance reform efforts;
  • Reorganize the Probation Department with youth and adult divisions to create needed specialization for each population;
  • Strengthen community partnerships and develop community-oriented offices;
  • Use structured decision making and validated risk/needs assessments to better place and track services;
  • Close and repurpose juvenile facilities, including one or two juvenile halls;
  • Address staffing, hiring and training issues; and
  • Invest in IT systems and use of data.

“There is consensus that these primary recommendations are essential to reforming Probation,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “The key now seems to be how to integrate, coordinate, and ensure that accountability systems are in place to advance this agenda to achieve stated benchmarks, with outcomes, to support clients and our communities.”

“Accepting RDA’s primary recommendations, and directly linking them to the efforts already underway on Probation reform, is the responsible thing to do,” he added. “The ultimate goal is a transformed department with clients’ well-being at its core.

Board Chair Sheila Kuehl said, “This report underscores the need to continue many of the positive actions that the County has been taking in recent years to strengthen and transform the nation’s largest probation department into a model for the rest of the country.”

“It also provides a practical framework for continued implementation of these important reforms,” she added. “I, and my fellow supervisors, are committed to seeing that this Probation Department provides not only oversight and supervision but also robust support systems for the adults and children in our care. Doing so better ensures the safety of all County residents.”

“RDA has done the crucial work of drawing on past reports, existing research, and input from the Probation Department and community stakeholders to craft an important and comprehensive set of recommendations,” said Josh Green, criminal justice program manager at the Urban Peace Institute, and an active community stakeholder working on juvenile justice reform. “The opportunity we have now is to imagine an implementation plan that recognizes the essential role of Board, the Department and community members, while also thinking about how we can all hold one another accountable.”

Expanding Voter and Civic Engagement

The Board of Supervisors called for expanding a Los Angeles County voter education and registration plan for eligible individuals involved with the criminal justice system.

Authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Board Chair Sheila Kuehl, the motion directs the Office of Diversion and Reentry to collaborate with the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, as well as other County departments and community stakeholders, to develop a voter and civic engagement plan over the next three months.

“There are still rampant misconceptions about voter’s rights, accessibility, and the qualifications of individuals with current or previous involvement with the criminal justice system to participate in elections,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Voter ineligibility disproportionately affects people of color, especially African-Americans.”

“This motion intends to elevate and expand Los Angeles County’s current efforts to assist the disenfranchised to become more civically engaged,” he added. “Regardless of circumstance, every citizen is worthy of having their say, and active participation in the democratic process is still the loudest bullhorn.”

The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center based in Washington, D.C., estimates that nearly 6 million Americans are ineligible to vote because of laws targeting those with previous criminal convictions.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Board Chair Kuehl’s motion centers on improving civic and electoral engagement by expanding on and enhancing the County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s current program, Voting While Incarcerated. The motion would also ensure that youth and adults involved with justice system have access to vital records, such as birth certificates and I.D.’s, to help them reintegrate back into their communities.

“With this motion, we are moving to lessen one of the daunting barriers faced by men and women being released from jail who are trying to get back on their feet and become successful members of society,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “Imagine trying to register for social security or rent an apartment without a personal identification card.”

“I am also very happy that this motion prioritizes the right to vote by those who are eligible but in jail, on probation, or on post-release community supervision,” she added. “This Board wants to strongly urge the participation of every person who is eligible to vote.”

Judge Peter Espinoza, director of the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR), the entity tasked with leading the effort, said work is already underway to provide vital records to the mentally ill population coming out of the jails. He added, “Expanding access to vital records and educating those eligible to vote is an essential element of the holistic reentry process that ODR provides.”

Susan Burton, founder of the nonprofit A New Way of Life, which has been working since 2008 to register incarcerated voters, said her organization is helping train 75 volunteers to register incarcerated individuals to vote in time for the primary elections. “People who are eligible to vote need information, but they also need meaningful access to the ballot,” she said.

Resentencing and the Decriminalization of Cannabis

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas calling on the Office of Cannabis Management, in collaboration with various Los Angeles County departments and community stakeholders, to develop a countywide plan to facilitate the resentencing of minor cannabis convictions.

Under Proposition 64, certain convictions qualify for reduction or dismissal. However, many people remain unaware that they may be eligible for legal relief, or are deterred by the cumbersome process.

“The war on drugs led to decades-long racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and convictions,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “We have a responsibility now to seek widespread reclassification and resentencing for those with minor cannabis convictions on their records, including the destruction of court records for youth.”

“This would remove barriers to employment, housing, financial assistance, and deepening social and economic disparities,” he added. “For many, this is the second chance that was due to them, and has been a long time coming.”

The motion, coauthored by Supervisor Hilda Solis, also seeks to prevent the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis-related offenses seen in other jurisdictions post-legalization. In Alaska, for example, while overall cannabis-related arrests fell after legalization, African Americans were still arrested for these offenses approximately 10 times more often than Caucasians were. In Washington, D.C. this racial disparity was closer to 4:1, and in Colorado, 3:1.

Eunisses Hernandez, policy coordinator with the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, supported the motion. “The act of getting someone’s conviction reclassified or dismissed off their record removes at least 4,800 barriers that prevent them from obtaining housing, employment and supportive services,” she told the Board. “Providing post-conviction relief services opens the door for new opportunities that allow people to fully integrate back into their communities after being impacted by the criminal justice system.”

She added, “Everyone in our communities benefit from having more people eligible for employment and other resources that allows them to support themselves and their families.”

 

 

A Vision for Vermont Manchester

New renderings capture the vision for a proposed development at the corner of Vermont and Manchester Avenues in southwest Los Angeles, transforming what has long been a source of blight into a bustling hub for the community.

Spanning two city blocks, the project will include retail shops, 180 affordable housing units, a public transit plaza and parking lot, and a public college preparatory boarding school designed to serve 400 youth currently served by Los Angeles County’s social safety net.

About 50,000 square feet would be dedicated to providing other critical needs within the community, such as retail and social services, as well as job training.

“This property is uniquely suited, sufficiently sized, and optimally assembled for this type of public investment,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “This community wants and deserves better, and the County strives to deliver better than the cycle of despair that the property has come to symbolize.”

“This project is real, and not the fantasy of a non-performing developer who has held the community hostage for two and a half decades,” he added.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in December to acquire ownership of the property, which has remained mostly undeveloped since being decimated during the civil unrest of 1992. It has received more than three dozen notices of violations from the City of Los Angeles.

The County has filed for immediate possession of the property and currently has a mid-April court date for the matter to be considered. The acquisition is expected to cause only minimal disruption, as the site is already vacant. The elements of the proposed project reflect the priorities of the recently adopted South Los Angeles Community Plan, as well as surveys by the Public Health Department and local community organizations.

Testifying before the Board in December, Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said, “Having spent the last 25 years in and around this particular set of parcels, this proposal comes as a great relief to me and thousands of other folks.” In a letter to the Board, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass wrote, “the County proposes to meet multiple needs here and serve the broader community.”

“We need development there, and I think this program that the Supervisor’s putting forth is what we need,” longtime resident Pastor Anthony Williams said in December. “I wholeheartedly support it, and all those that want to partner (with us) to make our community better.”

The Vermont Manchester site as it currently stands

Rendering of proposed development for the Vermont Manchester site