Holly Mitchell Wins Supervisors Race With Big Implications For Criminal Justice Reform In Los Angeles County
The LA County supervisors are poised to tackle a wide range of criminal justice reforms, including moving children and people struggling with mental health issues out of the criminal legal system, and redirecting millions of dollars away from law enforcement and back into communities.
Holly Mitchell, long known as a progressive reformer, has been elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors—a sign that transformative changes to the criminal legal system may be in sight for the most populous county in the United States.
The state senator beat former City Council president Herb Wesson Jr. for an open seat on the board, which functions as the governing body of Los Angeles County. Mitchell will replace Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has reached his term limit after 12 years as the county’s District 2 representative.
Since 2016, when progressives Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl were elected, Ridley-Thomas has leaned toward the political center of the five-member board, drawing criticism from local advocates for his record on housing and homelessness, and his entrenchment in establishment politics. With Mitchell’s win, the board now has a solid majority of progressive representatives.
Her election comes at a time when the LA County supervisors are poised to tackle a wide range of criminal justice reforms, including moving children and people struggling with mental health issues out of the criminal legal system, and redirecting millions of dollars away from law enforcement and back into communities.
The five members of the board are hardly household names locally, let alone on a national stage. Yet they wield enormous power, representing around 2 million constituents apiece and overseeing an ever-growing $36.8 billion budget for a county government apparatus that includes health and human services, parks and recreation, public works, and law enforcement: the DA’s office, probation department, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In Sacramento, Mitchell has made a name for herself as a staunch advocate for working families, young people, and the environment. During her decade-long tenure in the state legislature, she served as the head of the Senate budget committee and co-authored bills that work to limit the overreaches of the criminal legal system: granting the possibility of parole to people who were sentenced to life in prison as minors, sealing records for people whose arrests did not result in conviction, expanding voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, and creating a higher standard for police use of force.
“Holly Mitchell has been the biggest champion of criminal justice reform in the state of California at the state level,” Anthony Robles, the campaigns coordinator at the Youth Justice Coalition, told The Appeal earlier this month. His organization has worked closely with Mitchell on a number of bills that have helped extricate young people from the criminal legal system. Most recently, they collaborated on SB 1290, which eliminated debt incurred by minors during trial, probation, and detention before 2018.
Mitchell will now play a pivotal role in determining how law enforcement is funded in the county, at a time when many community leaders believe that genuine transformation of the criminal legal system is within reach.
“For a long time, county government has been thought of mainly by many people as merely a prosecutor or administrator of penalties,” Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who supported Mitchell, told The Appeal.
Recently, though, he said, “people are starting to try to reimagine county government, maybe remake it, as a provider of health and hope to people in dire circumstances, and not just their prosecutor or someone who metes out penalties.”
This shift is in no small part due to the tireless organizing of local racial justice groups, who have been lobbying the Board of Supervisors for criminal justice reform for years. The supervisors proved to be receptive to the demands of community organizers in recent years. They have established a civilian oversight board to monitor the sheriff’s department; moved ahead with the closure of the notorious Men’s Central Jail, and established working groups to study alternatives to incarceration and youth justice reform. After an intense organizing effort by the Reform LA County Jails Coalition, Measure R, a motion to increase the oversight board’s power to hold the sheriff’s department accountable and develop a plan to reduce the county’s jail population, was placed on the March primary ballot. It passed with over 70 percent of the vote.
In the months to come, the board will have to continue the Men’s Central Jail closure process, move forward with the findings of a report on youth justice currently being authored by the Youth Justice Coalition, and contend with controversial top sheriff Alex Villanueva.