Angelenos Deserve Justice Reform

The consequences of injustice and racism in our criminal legal system are real

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | ‘No Justice, No Peace’

LA County Public Defender Media Release

On May 25, 2020 we witnessed a murder and heard cries to end systemic racism in the criminal legal system. That day, a social movement erupted across the nation. The eyes of many opened to a stark reality that Black and Brown people live with every day, racism thrives in our criminal legal system. Diverse communities stood side by side to rail against a system that silences, dehumanizes, and over-incarcerates Brown and Black people. Angelenos spoke up, we can never again continue with business as usual; systemic racism must be called out and stopped.

The demand for reform in our criminal legal system is not new. As a community we realized fear-mongering led to caging children for behaviors they exhibited, in large part, because their brains were not fully developed. Our shame at following fear, not science, changed the juvenile justice system. We know the system is broken and we can fix it.

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The District Attorney’s new directives are being called revolutionary but there is nothing novel about the presumption of innocence our Constitution demands for every person accused of a crime. It is untenable that presumed innocent people remain in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. A directive that ends cash bail is consistent with the founding principles we should never have strayed from in the first place. The presumption of innocence is more than words, it is the foundation of equal justice.

Excessive bail is not about safety. It’s not about protecting our community from dangerous people; it is a two-tier system that protects those who have the means to pay regardless of the accusation. The cash bail system keeps the poor in jail simply because they can’t afford the bail, not based on a level of dangerousness. Equal justice does not exist in a cash bail system and that is unconscionable.

The Public Defender’s work with the Bail Project proves that individuals released on bail with appropriate community-based support services overwhelmingly come back to resolve their cases. With appropriate help, people can address the underlying reasons that trap them in the criminal legal system. Community-based programs help keep people home and out of cages. Care first, jail last works.

The consequences of injustice and racism in our criminal legal system are real. People lose their jobs and their homes; many end up on our streets, vulnerable to the ravages of homelessness. Over 70% of the 66,436 unhoused men and women in Los Angeles are justice-involved. We cannot afford to deny that the criminal legal system failed them and made their situation worse.

For more than a decade, data consistently proves incarceration and extreme sentences do not decrease the rate of recidivism. Purposeful care and help for people in the criminal legal system is what assures high rates of success and sustainable reentry back to our community. Fair sentences, opportunity for diversion, treatment and redemption have always been options for a privileged few who get arrested in Los Angeles County. Angelenos expect us to make the opportunity for diversion, treatment and redemption racially and socioeconomically equitable.

Asking that we treat people and not cage them is not new to public defenders, it is the reform we have called for from the rooftops of criminal courthouses for decades. Two recent studies by the Rand Corporation and the Office of Diversion and Reentry concluded, without question, that 4,000 men and women sitting in our county jails should not be caged but treated in mental health programs. Angelenos, through marches, petitions, letters to the Board of Supervisors, posts on social media, and their vote demand care not cages.

Angelenos are not blind and do not condone a criminal legal system that blatantly over incarcerates Black and Brown men and women. It is unconscionable that while African Americans are 9% of our community, they represent 30% of the people in the Los Angeles jails. Black and Brown men and women overwhelmingly overrepresent the numbers of people awaiting execution in this state. There is no doubt capital punishment is indefensible, racist and broken beyond repair. With our vote Angelenos demanded an end to the death penalty in our county.

George Gascon was elected to accelerate critical justice reform in Los Angeles. DA. Gascon’s election is a welcome extension of the change that already began to reshape our criminal legal system into something better, something more humane. The District Attorney embodies the will of the voters who demand real, lasting solutions to the problems that plague us, and the shameful failures that existed well before his candidacy. Mr. Gascon is ready to heed the communities’ call and demand the same from his deputies.

The people of Los Angeles elected George Gascon to be the District Attorney for their county. They did so with full knowledge that he would commit the office of the District Attorney to the reforms that this community demands. As the Los Angeles County Public Defender, I endorse the will of the people of Los Angeles County, and fully support all efforts that promise enduring justice reform, equity and an end to racial injustice.