How to Fight Mass Incarceration and Win
Criminal justice reform advocates in Los Angeles have amassed some impressive victories—laying out a model for reducing incarceration and providing care.
Mark Engler and Paul Engler
In the late spring and summer of 2020, protests for racial justice erupted in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Mobilizations spread throughout the country and continued for months, producing what scholars identified as arguably the largest wave of mass protest in U.S. history.
However, as with other surges of popular uprising, the actions died down over time. At that point, critics claimed that protesters made a lot of noise and drew public attention but were unable to translate their discontent into concrete policy gains. When the moment of peak protest passed, these detractors held, the movement disappeared with little to show for its efforts.
This narrative overlooks ongoing organizing efforts that have made important gains both before and after mass protests captured the spotlight. And there are few better places to see such organizing in action than Los Angeles County.
While their work has gotten little national attention, organizers in L.A. have amassed some impressive victories. First, in 2019, a coalition against mass incarceration succeeded in stopping a prison expansion plan that the county claimed would cost $2 billion, but that activists and community leaders charged could drain in excess of $3.5 billion in public funds. Subsequently, grassroots groups steered the work of a county Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup, which in 2020 produced a set of recommendations that JusticeLA, a coalition of more than fifty community organizations, unions, and activist groups, called “a groundbreaking roadmap for decarceration and service expansion.”
Adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as official policy in 2020, the Care First, Jails Last agenda includes a detailed set of recommendations that “aim to provide treatment and services to those in need, instead of arrest and jail.” Among them are mandates to dramatically scale back cash bail, broaden implementation of community-based harm reduction strategies, channel funding to programs for at-risk youth, establish pretrial services in highly impacted communities to replace law-enforcement supervision, provide beds for those released from jail who are in need of interim or supportive housing, and create urgent care centers to provide trauma-informed mental healthcare throughout the county.
To make sure that these policies would actually be carried out — and that budget shortfalls would not be used as an excuse for stonewalling — activists secured a funding stream that is set to channel hundreds of millions of dollars each year toward alternatives-to-incarceration initiatives. In the wake of the George Floyd mobilizations, organizers successfully pushed for the passage of Measure J, requiring that 10 percent of the county’s unrestricted general funds be invested in implementing the agenda. In principle, this could translate to well over $300 million annually. Vox called it “perhaps the most significant victory for the police reform movement since [the] summer’s protests.”
No doubt, the wins thus far are only partial ones. Activists have been forced to fight against both bureaucratic intransigence and legal challenges from deputy sheriffs. In March, they issued a report card to county administrators full of failing grades, accusing these officials of falling short of their commitments. Court rulings impeded the initial implementation of Measure J, although activists have since pushed the county to honor the funding requirements. In spite of all the difficulties, the model put forth by grassroots groups in L.A. holds genuine promise, representing an effort to fundamentally reorient the county’s approach to public safety and care.
Lex Steppling, a native of Los Angeles and National Director of Organizing for Dignity & Power Now, has been present throughout these battles. His group has been at the core of coalition drives to pressure officials for change from the outside — and also to engage with the county in its internal processes to craft and implement new policies. Among other related efforts, Dignity & Power Now is part of the executive committee of the JusticeLA coalition. We recently spoke with Steppling about the model coming out of L.A. County and the significance of local organizing to advance racial justice and oppose mass incarceration for people in other parts of the country. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Engler: If we were to make a timeline, what would you say was the first big campaign in the current drive against mass incarceration here? Was it stopping L.A. County’s plan for prison expansion?
Lex Steppling: Timelines are difficult because nothing has a starting point. Our organizing is always drawing off generational work. Los Angeles plays a really important role in abolition conversations. We go all the way back to George Jackson [the author of Soledad Brother], and to what came before him. The origin stories of the modern conversation around abolition in some ways started with him. That generational lineage is very fresh here.
Plus, the postmodern version of mass incarceration we see today was first workshopped in L.A.: SWAT teams, the militarization of police, policies like “three strikes,” gang databases and injunctions — the whole legacy of Daryl Gates [LAPD chief from 1978 to 1992], and prior to him William Parker [LAPD chief from 1950 to 1966].
But yes, the recent condensed policy timeline started with us stopping the jail plan through the JusticeLA campaign. They were going to build multiple jails. Between 2018 and 2020, we were stopping all of it. We were able to do that through grassroots power, collective pressure, and having an alternative vision. The Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup came out of that.
Often, when you put pressure on a local government against something they want to do, they’ll say, “Well, what are we supposed to do instead?” It’s like, “You guys are only good at diagnosing the problem, not figuring out what to do.”
We anticipated that and developed a very comprehensive plan around what you could do instead of expanding the largest jail system in the world. We put together the Los Angeles County Decarceration Report, and we published two editions of that report. When we did stop the jail plan — which was a big and profound win that no one thought was possible, because the expansion plan had already been put in motion — the county moved forward with a workgroup inviting all the stakeholders to develop an agenda around what we do instead of building these jails. And we were ready.
I don’t know whether their intentions with this workgroup were good or not, but it actually became an excellent example of how civic democracy can work in a participatory context. Because everybody came to the table — not just us, not just people from the community, [but opponents as well].
Paul Engler: When I look at the alternatives to incarceration program, I’m shocked by all the groups and individuals that have signed on to it. It ranges all the way from abolitionists to very mainstream people.
Steppling: It speaks to the fact that we mobilized a bigger base than anyone else. We essentially overwhelmed the county with a critical mass of well-informed people. And nothing we were saying didn’t make sense. We welcomed them to try to tell us where we were wrong. Every analysis that we put forth, every demand that we put forth, we had vetted it. We knew that we had to be accountable for everything we were saying.
Local governments try to use think tanks and the consultant class to counter your vision. In L.A. County, they tried to do that with the RAND Corporation. But then RAND issued a study that echoed what we said — which was that you can cut the jail population in half through comprehensive diversion programming, and it will have better public safety outcomes.
In creating our vision, many of us in the community were able draw on things we knew had worked before. For example, I drew on my experiences from the mid-to-late ’90s, when we saw a bunch of public health and public safety improvements. During the HIV crisis, a lot of resources, relatively speaking, came into the community through public health grants. Some of them found their way into the hands of local community-based service providers, and a lot of dynamic programming came out of it. You had free clinics, comprehensive sex ed, outreach to sex workers, and genuine harm reduction health services, where people could go and get the care they needed without being judged. And you had youth programming that saved my life.
I didn’t finish school. The last grade that I finished was the tenth grade, and I was out on my own for a number of reasons. I was able to get a job at the L.A. free clinic to work with other “at-risk” youth. At sixteen or seventeen years old, I became a certified HIV counselor and worked with other young people to develop our own curriculum to teach people in the community about safety. We transitioned some of that into doing neighborhood peace work, working intergenerationally to help stop the violence. All these dynamic approaches were happening whether the government or the nonprofit health funders realized it. And as a result, you had service clusters, you had drop-in centers, you had clinical spaces, you had housing programs, and you had job training programs, all done in a very unconditional way. It wasn’t punitive.
I saw people coming through our programs having so much success. But I also saw that my family members and friends who were going through the court system were having horrible outcomes. I realized it was simple: those who were facing the same risk factors as people getting incarcerated, but who were getting treatment and services in ways that were set apart from the court system, were having success. Those going through the court system were not.
That was obvious to those of us who have been impacted by these systems by virtue of where we’ve lived. We knew that the system of law enforcement didn’t care about success; it cared about punishment. It cared about the mass corralling of people. In contrast, these public health models care about safety and health.
When the Alternatives to Incarceration process started, we took so much of that perspective and essentially tried to force it into the workgroup’s recommendations. In the final recommendations, so much of what I just shared with you is in literally the first pages of the report. That was something we were conspicuously able to muscle in, because there was no real logic against it. And the recommendations passed in full because the county felt the pressure from the community.
Paul Engler: It seems like Dignity & Power Now and the other progressive forces in the workgroup were able to get all the civil society groups to coalesce and have some alignment around your vision.
Steppling: That’s a good way of putting it. There was a coalescing between the civil society forces and the abolitionists around a vision. And it was because that vision was undeniably the right direction. There were more moderate people in the room, and I always would say to them, “There’s a way forward, and there’s a way backward, but there’s no way around this.” To be frank, if we had let them dictate the direction, we would have gone back toward the center. So we held a line: “If anybody tries to water down what we’re doing, we will hold you accountable. Because we have no choice.”
We could only do all that because we had the two editions of our report laying out a very granular plan. Whether fair or not, we had to have answers for everything. So we spent a lot of time developing that. The county used the term “stakeholders,” but we would not have even been considered a stakeholder if we had not forced our way into the room by virtue of being the only ones who actually designed something.
Part of how we were able to be part of the governance process was by having very intentional conversations internally. This is always a tricky thing to do in an activist community — to say, “We’re not going to just do the protest stuff that they expect us to do. We’re not going to just shut it down.” We had to say, “We’re building something. We’re creating something, and it has to be collaborative.”
But there’s a difference between collaboration and negotiation. We said, “There is no negotiation. We will not accept anything but these demands, but there will be collaboration, because we have to get there together.” The only way you achieve that is by overwhelming them with force. But it has to be a constructive force. To play the inside game, we let the county take credit for a thing that we developed and wrote — the recommendations are literally based off of our two decarceration reports. You want the county to feel a sense of proprietary energy, because then they’re more likely to carry it out.
The tag line for the policy recommendations became “Care First, Jails Last.” On the community side, we would have said, “Care First, Jails Never.” But if you read the recommendations, it’s essentially an abolitionist vision.
Mind you, we had to be very tactful because we also had the sheriffs in the room. We had the probation department in the room. I was often the one asked to go sit at the table with the sheriffs. That was a really interesting experience, developing this alongside them.
Paul Engler: In a lot of other cities, we see efforts to take small bites out of the issue of criminal justice reform — for example, bail reforms, or reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses, or treatment of juveniles, or “ban the box” campaigns. But your approach seems to be different, in that it unifies these different issues into a single campaign with a common vision.
Steppling: I learned something a long time ago, when I stepped into this more nonprofit, criminal justice reform world. I encountered this professionalized version of advocacy, and I felt pretty horrified at a few things. One was the siloing of the issues. Saying, “Okay, we’re just doing bail reform. We’re not talking about those other things.”
We have to tell people the truth. And the truth is that the issues are unified. One doesn’t exist without the other. We can close as many brick-and-mortar jails as we want. But all we’re going to do is pave the way for them to build new jails if we don’t tie it to the policies that feed jails. And the policies that feed jails then have to be tied to the policies that feed poverty, and so on — so that we’re including not just the economic justice conversation, but also one that talks about trauma, that talks about what family separation actually looks like and the disruption it causes in communities.
I’ve always felt like the word “radical” can be a canard. So much of what we demand is really sensible. It’s only “radical” in relationship to the status quo. And the status quo is actually what’s radical. A system of mass punishment and brutality — to me that’s radical; that’s the hard line.
I think the abolitionist vision is very sensible, because it’s about models of well-functioning civic life. It’s about actual safety.
Mark Engler: In many situations, progressives might try to win a policy change but leave it to the politicians to figure out how to fund it. In the case of Measure J, you went directly after the money. How did you land on that strategy?
Steppling: Measure J was a kind of addendum to Alternatives to Incarceration. It was developed to ensure — or at least try to ensure — that they wouldn’t be able to use austerity as an excuse to not implement the recommendations.
Measure J was a real stroke of genius on the part of [Dignity & Power Now colleague Ivette Alé]. Ivette saw an opportunity: At the county level in California, we have a ballot measure system. Usually it requires signature gathering, which takes a lot of time and money. But the County Board of Supervisors can also put something on the ballot by virtue of a motion. And so we wrote a motion saying, “We want L.A. County’s discretionary budget to be protected from law enforcement, so they can’t dip into it. And we want 20 percent of that discretionary budget, every year in perpetuity, to go to funding the ATI recommendations.”
The supervisors came back to us and were like, “That’s insane.”
But we didn’t let up. We asked for 20 percent knowing that they might say it was completely impossible. But to us, everything’s possible. We ended up getting 10 percent of L.A. County’s discretionary budget into a measure, which for us was still a massive thing. On average, it’s about half a billion dollars per year. And we got them to put it on the ballot.
They didn’t do it because they liked us. They did it because we had them cornered, and because we had mobilized a critical mass. This was right before the pandemic. Even then, we were anticipating them creating an austerity narrative to not fund the vision they just agreed to. And then the people promoting Measure J became their own coalition, because groups such as the United Way reached out to us wanting to help.
Mark Engler: Can you explain why this discretionary pool of money is so important?
Steppling: The policies of how budgets work feel very conspicuously designed to take agency away from communities. It’s one of the ways that they limit democracy, or the power of democratic mandates.
The county wanted to do a jail expansion that we argued would have cost $3.5 billion. So early on in JusticeLA, we went to people and asked, “What could you do instead with that $3.5 billion?” It’s always a good exercise for people to think about what we should actually be investing in.
But the reality is that those billions that were earmarked for the jail expansion plan cannot legally be taken and just put into schools, for example. There are capital construction laws in California that are complex and very difficult to get information on. As far as public dollars are concerned, it’s easier in California to build a prison than it is to build a library- – or even to build a stadium or a shopping mall.
Discretionary money at the county level is one of the few places where there’s more flexibility. It’s up to the county to decide what to spend it on. A lot of times, they don’t spend it at all. They just try to develop a surplus. So we said, “Out of that discretionary budget, you can easily find the money to fund Alternatives to Incarceration.” The service clusters and clinical spaces we need, the youth development work that saved my life — all that can be funded with the discretionary budget.
Paul Engler: It seems like a lot of your work has not just been about getting these changes passed, but about getting them implemented once they’ve already been adopted as policy. And that has involved fighting inertia and taking on government bureaucracies that are not excited to carry out the changes.
Steppling: We’ve had to deal a lot with the county CEO’s office. It’s a very bureaucratically oriented office that doesn’t seem to face the same pressure as politicians. In some ways, we let them off the hook for about six months when we were embedded on the inside — because we thought we were working with them in good faith to develop the ins and outs of how the policy was going to be implemented. And then when it was time to implement it, we saw that they didn’t want to. This included not only Measure J, but also things like closing Men’s Central Jail, or implementing our model for independent pretrial services that do not rely on law enforcement. They’re dragging their feet on that now, too.
You encounter limitations in local government where they’re afraid to do things that go against how they’ve been trained to administer. It’s outside of their comfort zone, outside of how they’ve been taught to do this. They agree with us that Measure J is good, yet there’s still inertia. Sometimes we work with them to engineer things perfectly, and then they still don’t do it.
Working in good faith on the inside worked really well with the Alternatives to Incarceration recommendations. With implementation, it didn’t work as well. To me, that has to do with the fact that our outside game got diluted a bit.
There’s that great saying, “Don’t confuse access with influence.” Once you have consistent, effective access to the inside, sometimes folks get confused. And that’s where a lot of stuff goes wrong. Just because you’re inside doesn’t mean shit. The inside game is only so valuable. You have to always have a strong presence on the outside. And that’s where I come from, politically.
Paul Engler: If you were to take stock of the things you’ve won and try to describe them for people outside of Los Angeles, what would you say?
Steppling: The fact that we stopped the jail plan in less than a year is amazing — let alone that we developed the visions that are now in place. Alternatives to Incarceration is in place. Our vision for pretrial services is approved. Measure J passed by a huge margin An earlier ballot measure — Measure R, giving subpoena power to the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission [in investigating complaints against the Sheriff’s Department] — passed by more than 70 percent. We’re doing work around coroner accountability, and a huge report just came out from UCLA. I could go on and on. It’s almost like there have been too many wins for us to even articulate.
And then there’s where our minds are at day in and day out. I know that when we talk to activists, a lot of times it’s only negative, because they talk about their frustrations. I don’t feel that way; I don’t feel negative about any of this. I try to make sure I’m looking at everything honestly, neither glass half empty or glass half full.
For me it’s always, “How can we make sure that we’re politically evolving, both drawing on history and in anticipation of what’s coming? We’ve encountered the limitations of one kind of collaborative relationship with local government. What new strategies do we develop to make that collaboration better, while also reminding ourselves that the outside has to still be the most robust force in all of this?”
Some of the people that I respect the most get bogged down on the inside sometimes. And it’s because they really want to make it work. It’s easy to forget that the only reason we won in the first place was that we overwhelmed them from the outside. The inside game only exists because of the outside game.
Research assistance provided by Akin Olla and Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.
This story was first posted at Dissent.
Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Momentum Training. They are co-authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books), and they can be reached via the website www.democracyuprising.com.