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This Los Angeles County Election Could Have A Big Effect On Criminal Justice Reform

The Board of Supervisors wields enormous power over a county government apparatus that includes the DA’s office, probation department, and sheriffs.

Herb Wesson and Holly MitchellPhoto illustration by Elizabeth Brown

Los Angeles County voters have several high-stakes decisions to make this election season: in the presidential race, in a tense DA fight that could spell major changes for policing in LA, and on a watershed measure that would redirect 10 percent of unrestricted county funds toward community investment. 

And many will be weighing in on another election with critical implications for criminal justice reform: the race to represent District 2, the cradle of Black political power and community organizing in Los Angeles, on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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.

Whoever fills the open seat next month will play a pivotal role in determining how law enforcement is funded in the largest county in the United States—at a time when many community leaders believe that genuine transformation of the criminal legal system is within reach.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, the current supervisor of District 2, has reached the term limit of 12 years on the board. Residents will be deciding between Herb Wesson Jr., the longtime president of the Los Angeles City Council, and Holly Mitchell, a progressive mainstay of the California State Senate.  

District 2 is home to Black and Latinx communities that have been burdened by police violence, surveillance, qualified immunity, and mass incarceration for generations. Its residents have protested state violence time and again—from the Watts Rebellion, to the 1992 riots, to the recent uprisings in response to the killings of Andrés Guardado and Dijon Kizzee, two men from the district who were killed by sheriff’s deputies this year. 

“In moments throughout history, District 2 has challenged the moral compass of Los Angeles—and the country,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of the Frontline Wellness Network, during a candidate forum livestream on Oct. 2. “Whoever steps into that seat is going to have to hold the grief and greatness of where we live—the pain, the power, and the promise of our folks.”

Both Wesson and Mitchell are Black politicians who have been representing South LA for a decade or more. “Everybody in Los Angeles knows Holly and Herb,” Melina Abdullah, a scholar, an organizer, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, told The Appeal. 

Over the course of their campaigns, Mitchell and Wesson have emphasized their commitment to reinvesting county dollars in the community. Neither candidate’s website lays out specific policy platforms for criminal justice reform; in public, both tend to emphasize their respective records and broad goals rather than concrete future plans. 

In a recent debate hosted by KPCC and LAist, Wesson said he is focused on “reimagining public safety—changing the system of policing in this county,” highlighting his recent police reform efforts on the City Council. Mitchell has touted her tenure as the head of the California Senate budget committee as evidence of her budgeting prowess. The state senator has spoken at length about the need for investment in mental health services, criticizing the way that law enforcement has become a “backstop” for people experiencing mental health crises. In the KPCC debate, she also called for the demilitarization of police in LA County, saying, “we don’t need any more $5 million helicopters.” 

The local liberal establishment, including Mayor Eric Garcetti and nearly every sitting council member, has largely coalesced around Wesson in this race, while Mitchell is supported by progressive groups and state government figures like Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Representative Katie Porter. Meanwhile, organizations that focus on issues of racial justice and law enforcement such as the Frontline Wellness Network, Black Lives Matter LA, and the Youth Justice Coalition are evaluating which candidate will be more likely to advance their goals in the months and years to come. 

The next supervisor, Clayton-Johnson told The Appeal,  “is stepping into a momentum that the community has been building for years, and they’re going to need to really move that forward.” And no matter who wins, he said, they’ll have to answer questions that District 2 residents have  been asking for years: “Why are we spending so many resources on policing? Why did we spend $45 million last year arresting and booking houseless Black people alone?” 

In Sacramento, Holly 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, Mitchell served as the head of the Senate budget committee and co-authored countless 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. 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. 

Robles called Mitchell “a really savvy and respected legislator.” The Youth Justice Coalition doesn’t make endorsements, but Robles is personally supporting the senator based on his past experience working with her and what he sees as her commitment to youth justice in particular. He noted that the Youth Justice Coalition has been working with Ridley-Thomas, the departing supervisor, on a report that will recommend moving young people out of the probation process in favor of a new youth development department; Robles feels confident that Mitchell will carry on that work.

Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who has been a prominent voice on issues of racial justice and policing, will also be voting for Holly Mitchell for supervisor. “Past is often prologue,” he said: “She’s been a leader … she’s showing the kind of moral and policy convictions that you really want in a county supervisor, who may be in this job 12 years.” He also sees her as more likely to elevate the demands of activists and the very people most affected by unjust policing: “Mitchell has a background in both nonprofit service and legislation that suggests that she has a history of listening to those voices.”

Wesson’s record is more complex, particularly when it comes to policing. With stints as former District 2 supervisor Yvonne Burke’s chief of staff and the speaker of the California Assembly, Wesson is best known for leading the Los Angeles City Council to unanimous vote after unanimous vote during his eight-year term as council president (the council voted unanimously on over 99.9% of decisions during at least three of his years in the role).  He has long accepted significant sums of money from law enforcement unions. Wesson said recently that these contributions do not affect his voting decisions, but refused to disavow the money. (Mitchell will reject law enforcement donations in this race, according to her campaign manager; the candidate has received several contributions from California’s main prison guard union in the past.)

In the last several months, Wesson has shown a commitment to re-examining the role of police in LA County, most notably in his efforts to create an unarmed crisis response body that would respond to nonviolent emergency calls in place of police. Not everyone believes, however, that his newfound passion for criminal justice reform is sincere. 

“I’m not sure if it’s a true shift or if he’s just taking the opportunity,” Robles said. “He’s a born-again reformer,” Armour said. “This is the same Herb Wesson who in 2017 pushed through a charter amendment”—the controversial Measure C—“requested by the local police union that really weakened the disciplinary system for officers accused of corruption or excessive force, and he’s taken a lot of money from police unions and law enforcement interests.” 

Abdullah sees it differently. She pointed to Wesson’s developing relationship with Black Lives Matter LA and the Los Angeles Community Action Network (whose founder,  Pete White, has also endorsed Wesson), his work to obtain accurate data about COVID-19’s effect on Black residents of LA County, and his amplification of the demands of Black-led groups in LA during the early months of the pandemic as evidence that he is a stronger champion for Black communities than his detractors would suggest. 

Abdullah told The Appeal that in the years since their showdown over Measure C, she sees a real shift in Wesson. “He had to do some soul-searching in this moment,” she said. “I think that (law enforcement’s) support for him is waning given his relationship with BLM, which is not a secret at this point. … I don’t think he’s won any friends by introducing a motion that says that police should not be the responders to nonviolent calls.” (Wesson seemed to stand by Measure C in a recent debate, though he acknowledged that the measure is “not perfect.”)

Though Robles and Armour are firmly in Mitchell’s camp, they both feel cautiously optimistic about Wesson’s capacity for change. “I feel good that if elected, he would continue in the same vein that he has recently at the city level,” Robles told The Appeal. “At the end of the day, whatever his motives are for doing more progressive things, like having first responders rather than police—it’s because of community pressure.” 

“He may not be proactive,” Armour echoed, “but he responds when he hears the voices.”

As they fill out their ballots in the coming weeks, LA County voters will weigh in on Measure J, which would divert 10 percent of the county budget’s locally generated, unrestricted revenue to youth and community development, mental healthcare, and diversion programs. If passed, it would signify a huge shift in funding priorities for the county. “If Measure J does pass, it’s like all the dominos are falling,” said Robles. 

“For a long time, county government has been thought of mainly by many people as merely a prosecutor or administrator of penalties,” Armour 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 current supervisors have proved to be receptive to the demands of community organizers, even before the uprising. They’ve 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

“It’s important for folks to understand that Measure J is building on the momentum of Measure R,” Clayton-Johnson told The Appeal. “We believe that those same voters don’t just want to stop jail construction and see those resources reallocated, but will now take the opportunity to actually set the budget themselves via their vote.” 

The Board of Supervisors hasn’t completely forfeited its power, however. If Measure J passes, the supervisors will decide how and where that 10 percent of the county’s unrestricted revenue will be best spent. And even if it doesn’t, supervisors can still choose to significantly reorder funding priorities in the county. 

Mitchell and Wesson support Measure J, but there’s an important difference in their positions. At a recent debate between the two candidates on NBC’s LA affiliate, Wesson said he didn’t think the board should have delegated one of its central responsibilities to voters, but he does support the broader premise of reinvesting in communities. Mitchell took a stronger stance, saying, “the 10 percent shouldn’t be perceived as the ceiling. It may be the floor.” 

In the months to come, the board will also 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 “be prepared to do battle” with controversial top sheriff Alex Villanueva, as Abdullah put it. 

Regardless of who wins, the actions of the next supervisorial class will have far-reaching consequences for life in Los Angeles. “No matter who’s in that seat,” said Robles, “we’re going to continue to organize on the ground and put pressure on them, and use the power of a community when it’s organized.”