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County to create task force to assist ex-convicts

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Dec. 1 to form a task force to help non-violent ex-convicts update their records under Proposition 47 and to link them to jobs and services.

Proposition 47 — dubbed by supporters as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act — was approved by 59.6 percent of California voters in 2014. It reduced some non-violent drug and property crimes — such as shoplifting, receiving stolen property and writing bad checks of less than $950 — from felonies to misdemeanors.

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed the task force and Solis said it would bolster public safety.

“The primary purpose of the motion today is to reduce crime,” Solis said. “Jail and prison have become a revolving door.”

The task force will focus on connecting individuals coming out of jail and prison with jobs, housing, health care and mental health and substance abuse treatment and finding funding for those services.

“For the last 40 years, our broken criminal justice system has drained communities like South Los Angeles,” said Karren Lane of the Community Coalition of policies that doled out harsh punishments for drug and other non-violent offenses.

Solis highlighted the barriers faced by ex-offenders.

“Having a felony conviction makes it difficult to get work, to get housing, to get services and to put your life back together,” Solis told her colleagues.

Public Defender Ronald L. Brown said individuals in prison and jail suffer disproportionately from mental illness and substance abuse and told the board that treatment is critical to success outside of jail.

“Prisons don’t encourage inmates to address their drug problems,” Brown said.

Proponents say the proposition provides a more just penalty for low-level offenders. Anticipated savings from the law are intended to be spent on mental health and substance abuse treatment, truancy and dropout prevention and victim services.

“I think what we’re talking about is a hand up, not a hammer down,” said Bruce Brodie of the county’s office of Alternate Public Defender.

Other backers point to how Prop. 47 has alleviated prison overcrowding and allowed more serious offenders to serve a greater proportion of their sentence.

However, opponents say Prop. 47 puts dangerous criminals who should be behind bars out on the streets.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich pointed to criminals who are released only to commit new crimes, citing the example of one man who had been arrested 22 times after his initial release.

“Violent crime is up 4.2 percent,” Antonovich said.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl challenged the idea that the proposition was linked to higher crime rates.

“There has been a lot of rhetoric about Prop. 47 and a rise in crime rates and it’s just that, rhetoric. There is no data,” Kuehl said.

Kuehl said San Diego County hasn’t seen a rise in crime since Prop. 47 became effective.

There are roughly 695,000 Los Angeles County residents who are eligible to apply to change their criminal records under Prop. 47, according to Brown, who told the board that his office is overwhelmed by the need to help ex-offenders “become employed, tax-paying citizens of this county.”

One community advocate said many of those eligible were unaware of the potential to change their lives.

“Two out of three people who qualify for Prop. 47 are not even aware” it exists, said Amber Rose Howard of All of Us or None.

The task force was also charged with trying to extend the deadline to apply for a criminal record change, currently set for Nov. 3, 2017.

The board directed staffers from the Office of Diversion and Re-Entry to work with the city of Los Angeles’ Office of Re-entry to push for the region’s share of state funding from Prop. 47 savings. A report back is expected in six months.

The board also asked the auditor-controller to audit the county’s savings as a result of Prop. 47.