Justice Reform Should Rely on Fact

By R.J. Dreiling

The conviction-and-incarceration obsessed district attorney is a common caricature used among “progressive prosecutors” looking to unseat their more experienced opponents. Condemning “mass incarceration,” they fuel the fear that nonviolent, mentally ill people are being needlessly incarcerated by unscrupulous prosecutors. A recent article in the Huffington Post covering the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s race is a prime example. The article simultaneously maligns the incumbent Jackie Lacey for engaging in “fear-mongering” while baiting the reader with a series of half-truths regarding the extent of incarceration in Los Angeles County.

Take the assertion that “LA County jails house more inmates than any other jail system in the country.” True on its face, what the author fails to mention is the fact that this is the largest county in the country by nearly five million people.  The worthwhile data to examine is the per capita rate of incarceration. In their 2015 comprehensive study of incarceration in every single county in the country, the Vera Institute of Justice found something “unexpected.” They found that the largest jails, including Los Angeles County jails specifically, “often draw the most attention and are the most often discussed by policymakers and in the media,” despite the fact that these jails “have not grown the most, nor are they located in the jurisdictions with the highest incarceration rates.” How does Los Angeles County compare to other densely populated areas? A detailed map compiled in the study shows the county actually has a much lower incarceration rate than similarly populated areas. According to even more recent data, Philadelphia County has an incarceration rate 57% higher than Jackie Lacey’s Los Angeles County – despite Philadelphia County being the home of Larry Krasner, star of the progressive prosecutor movement.

The article parrots another favorite talking point among progressive prosecutors: “the harm prosecutors…cause when they imprison people who do not pose a public safety threat.” So how widespread is this practice of incarceration for nonviolent offenses? In California, 75% of people in prison are there for “crimes against persons” like murder, manslaughter, rape, and child molestation.  If you include breaking into someone’s home as a “crime against a person,” the number is actually 80%. The total percentage of people in prison for property crimes other than breaking into someone’s home? Including vehicle theft, grand theft, forgery and fraud? Only 5.1%. Which leaves the only other significant category – drugs crimes. The total percentage of inmates being held in this category is 4.4%, the majority of which are for sales and manufacturing. This is significantly below the national state prison average of 16%.

What about simple drug possession crimes served in local jails as opposed to state prisons?  Surely, then, Los Angeles County’s jails are overcrowded with an outsize number of perpetrators of this victimless crime? Quite the contrary. In a county of 10 million people, on any given day only 111 people are being held for simple drug possession. Just as with state prisons, the majority of those in Los Angeles County jails are being held for crimes against persons, sex crimes, and weapons offenses.

What about cash bail? How many people are being held in Los Angeles County jails before trial for crimes such as drug possession and petty theft who cannot afford to post bail? Of the total Los Angeles County jail inmate population, less than 1% are being held before trial on misdemeanor property and drug crimes. The reality is, more than likely, the vast majority of those arrested for these types of crimes with a minimal criminal record are being released with a simple promise to appear – but some are subsequently held after failing to return as promised.

Justice reform advocates also refer to Los Angeles County jails as the “largest mental health” institution in the United States. Of the 17,000 people in Los Angeles County jails, about 30% suffer from serious mental health issues.  Advocates for reform point to a recent study (the “RAND” report) indicating that 3,300 of these inmates are appropriate candidates for mental health diversion, rather than incarceration. The focus on these thousands of inmates is an attempt to bolster their claim that Los Angeles prosecutors are needlessly letting the mentally ill languish in jail. The truth, again, is far from the political talking point.

The actual purpose of the report was to determine the number of incarcerated people appropriate for mental health services in order to better evaluate “how the community would need to scale community-based treatment programs to accommodate the full divertible population.” The problem with treating thousands of mentally ill patients lies not with prosecutors, but in the lack of available resources and infrastructure needed to provide treatment. Nowhere in the report is there a trace of an implication that prosecutors are standing in the way of available treatment, only the implication that treatment availability is not currently sufficient.

Reducing the number of people incarcerated, and providing treatment for those in desperate need, are unquestionably moral necessities. However, the realities of incarceration hardly match some of the hype. Achieving these undoubtedly moral ends need not be done at the cost of misrepresenting the facts and slandering dedicated civil servants who have devoted their careers to the service of the public good.

R.J. Dreiling is a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles and a member of the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys. The opinions here are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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