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Supervisors seek further study on jail reform initiative

By Jacqueline Fernandez

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The future of the Reform L.A. Jails initiative remains uncertain.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called for further study of the ballot measure that would give subpoena power to the Civilian Oversight Commission at its Sept. 11 meeting.

The commission — established by the Board of Supervisors in 2016 — oversees the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, much like the Los Angeles Police Commission watches over the Los Angeles Police Department.

The initiative has gained many supporters. On Sept. 7, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s Office officially qualified the Reform L.A. ballot measure as having received enough voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.

In August, the Reform L.A. Coalition submitted more than 246,000 signatures to the Registrar-Recorder’s Office. It also turned in 9,248 new voter registrations.

The threshold for a county initiative is 146,333 valid signatures.

“I have not seen an initiative driven by volunteers and political outsiders move so quickly,” said Steven Belhuemer of SB Strategies, the company that led the signature-gathering phase of the campaign. “This is a progression of a movement that is informed, agitated and focused. Eleven months from brainstorm to board agenda—just wow.”

The Board of Supervisors has three options to choose from. It can adopt the measure as is, bypassing the vote and making it county law; submit the initiative, without alteration, to the voters in November 2020; or order a report back in 30 days on financial and other impacts of the measure.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl recommended waiting for a report.

“I personally feel … that the third option is really the most responsible for this board,” she told her colleagues.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors led the Reform L.A. Jails Coalition of prison experts, public safety and criminal justice reform leaders, residents, business owners, religious leaders and the community at large.

“We can imagine a Los Angeles that isn’t reliant on suffering and isn’t reliant on caging the most vulnerable populations: black, undocumented, poor, queer and disabled folks. These are the communities that we should be fighting for and the Reform L.A. Jails initiative gives us the opportunity to make that L.A. dream a reality,” Cullors said.

However, not everyone is supportive of the initiative.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell opposes subpoena power for the commission. He says the Office of Inspector General has the access to confidential information needed to investigate misconduct by sheriff’s deputies.

If the initiative is passed, the watchdog group will have the capability to investigate, inquire, audit, monitor and examine the Office of Inspector General’s handling of citizen and inmate complaints.

In addition, it also would mandate a study of ways to reduce the county jail population and examine the feasibility of directing funds allocated for jail construction into mental health treatment, diversion programs, reducing habitual relapse and other community resources.

The county is in the conceptual design phase of work to replace the downtown Men’s Central Jail with a $2.2 billion combination jail-clinic dubbed the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility.

A bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature could expand the commission’s authority.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner’s SB 1421 would overturn existing state law to open public access to records related to law enforcement use of force, on-the-job sexual assault and other misconduct.

Kuehl said she thought the language of the measure was “very responsible” but said it would ultimately be up to voters to decide.

“We could imagine that we don’t want jails,” Kuehl said before the vote. “But if we don’t do something, maybe Men’s Central just stays the way it is.”

The study requested by the board must be completed within 30 days and the board must take its next step, to either adopt the initiative or slate it for a future ballot, within 10 days after that.

For more information about the ballot initiative, visit