By Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted today to consider shifting some money and responsibility away from the Sheriff’s Department to other county services, potentially using jail funding for diversion and treatment programs.

The board also advanced a motion to set up a 911-like system for residents to call for unarmed help.

Supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis co-authored a motion to look at reallocating AB109 state funding from custody and probation operations to diversion, substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

“This moment is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get away from our over-reliance on incarceration and invest in treatment and services,” Hahn said. “We cannot police our way out of all of our problems — whether that be mental illness, or poverty, or addiction. I want to look critically at the state funding that we currently give to our jail system and see if there is a smarter way to spend this money.”

AB109 shifted responsibility for lower-level offenders to counties in order to relieve over-crowding in state prisons. The bulk of the dollars were originally split between the Sheriff’s Department, which received 63% of the total, and the Probation Department, which got 22%. The motion did not provide updated percentages, but Hahn said it was time to rethink the allocations.

The county is expected to receive $358.3 million in unrestricted AB109 funding in the current fiscal year — short of original estimates, but more than may be necessary given a jail population that has been reduced by nearly 30% in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. The board has indicated that it intends to do what it can to keep those numbers at current levels.

“We don’t need to be keeping 17,000 people locked up in jail every day,” Hahn said. “We’ve managed to safely decrease our average jail population by nearly 5,000 since the pandemic began.”

The board directed the CEO to consider how the funding could instead be allocated to programs envisioned by a March report on Alternatives to Incarceration, which has been cited as a road-map for the county’s criminal justice reform efforts under a “Care First, Jails Last” approach.

Solis said the community should be involved in the conversation.

“Investing in community-based treatment and services, instead of incarceration, is not only humane, but is cost effective in the long run. It allows people to remain with their families and stay at their jobs, as they get treatment and help and that benefits all of us in the long run,” Solis said. “We must continue to invite community voices to the table to not only participate in this conversation, but to also be part of the solution in how we can uplift and empower our justice-involved communities.”

Some of those voices are calling for more dramatic changes, including defunding police departments, while unions are pushing back against the prospect of budget cuts. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s announcement that he might cut the Los Angeles Police Department budget by as much as $150 million to fund community programs, for example, was met by ridicule from the police union, which suggested that the mayor was pandering to protesters.

Solis previewed a motion — co-authored by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and expected to be considered by the board July 7 — proposing that the county work to close the Men’s Central Jail within one year. The board originally planned to replace the decrepit, long-outdated facility with a massive mental health treatment center, but met resistance from criminal justice advocates who argued for smaller, community-based treatment facilities as a more effective alternative.

The board had approved some capital spending on the jail, but Solis said in a statement that the Sheriff’s Department and the county recently agreed that the facility needs to close because it is too expensive to maintain.

In a separate motion, Hahn recommended that the Department of Mental Health look into setting up a new emergency number that residents could call to request help from health and human services workers rather than armed police officers or sheriff’s deputies. As an alternative, the motion suggested finding a way to triage 911 calls to direct some pleas for assistance away from law enforcement.

“It’s important, as we’re seeing now, that the right kind of help arrives,” Hahn said. “A call to 911 will dispatch law enforcement or paramedics… but those are not always the most appropriate responses. We’re asking our law enforcement officers and our paramedics to do so much and wear so many hats. They’re not trained mental health professionals, social workers, substance abuse counselors, homelessness outreach workers.”

The presence of an armed officer can sometimes escalate the situation, Hahn said.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger pointed to the success of mental health evaluation teams of social workers and deputies that grew out of the need for specialized response to domestic violence calls. She said such programs should enhance law enforcement efforts rather than replace them.

“I have to believe that if we had more robust programs like this, some of the incidents you’re seeing taking place throughout this country would not occur,” Barger said. “I maintain that it’s not an ‘either/or’ as it relates to law enforcement, it’s an ‘and’… I don’t think anyone should expect us to flatline on public safety.”

Hahn called on Sheriff Alex Villanueva to share his support for the motion, but the sheriff took a slightly different tack.

First, he warned the board to “keep your hands off the 911 system and leave it for emergency only.”

Villanueva said he could support an auxiliary system, but then defended his deputies and expressed skepticism about whether other county workers could truly be counted on to show up at the drop of the hat in the middle of the night to help residents.

“In fact, we have our 911 operators… trying… to transfer calls to a non-public safety branch, however what we found out is that the callers are on hold forever and there’s no response,” Villanueva said. “It’s a 24/7 operation, it’s not 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.”

The sheriff said his deputies are thoughtful in considering the needs of those they serve, but the county lacks capacity to respond to all of those needs.

“We’ve found there’s a lack of support for alternatives when we identify them in the field. We’re not just some brainless person with an armed response that shows up with a hammer looking for a nail.”

He said deputies often serve as effective “referees” in situations where families view child welfare workers as the bad guys. Plenty of lives have been saved as a result of deputies reaching out to homeless people on the street, handing out masks and hand sanitizer along with suggestions about ways to access help, the sheriff told the board.

Villanueva also pushed back against the Alternatives to Incarceration recommendations, saying that residents involved with the justice system had too heavy a hand in crafting them. He urged the board to talk to a broader group of residents, including victims of crime, before moving forward with reforms.

The board’s vote on both motions was unanimous.