Bring a Diversion-First Approach to Misdemeanors
The misdemeanor charges that are within the jurisdiction of the LA City Attorney are not the same as the felony charges handled by the District Attorney. Many misdemeanors are "minor" and "lesser" offenses; in fact, the top three misdemeanor charges brought in LA are for public intoxication, simple DUIs, and "other."
For decades, the LA City Attorney's office has been unacceptably harsh in its prosecution of misdemeanor charges, punishing minor, victimless acts with a criminal record that stays with people for life. People who have a criminal conviction on their record, even for a misdemeanor, have a more difficult time finding a job, getting housing, and accessing benefits. This approach actually makes us less safe, increasing recidivism and preventing people from moving past a minor violation. Studies show that diversion--offering people needed services rather than punishing them for a minor offense--makes our communities safer.
The next City Attorney must take a different approach. If elected, I will reorient the office to prioritize diversion over prosecution. I will take immediate steps to significantly reduce prosecutions for misdemeanor offenses, including but not limited to the following charges: trespassing on public property, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, public intoxication, minor driving offenses, loitering, drug possession, minor in possession of alcohol, failure to pay a parking ticket, failure to appear in court and resisting arrest. For these offenses, I will develop innovative new diversion programs that address underlying issues--mental health issues, addiction, alcoholism--without giving someone the life-sentence of a criminal record.
Upon my election, I will institute a 100-day pause in the prosecutions of new misdemeanor charges, unless they are particularly egregious or time-sensitive, while I evaluate my office’s policies related to misdemeanors to determine how we can improve and implement diversion programs that get individuals the help they need and make our entire community safer.
End the Overuse and Abuse of Diversion Programs
Diversion programs are intended to function as an alternative to incarceration, wherein charges that would otherwise result in jail time can be resolved without disrupting lives and livelihoods. While diversion programs are still a valuable tool when it comes to reducing mass incarceration, they can and have been abused by prosecutors. Diversion programs have, at times, been used as a means to impose a cost – and a criminal record – upon citizens who are facing charges that would otherwise be dropped.
For example, I recently represented Antone Austin, a Hollywood music producer who was racially profiled and wrongfully arrested by the LAPD in 2019. His arrest was inarguably unjust and illegal. The City Attorney’s prosecutor knew that their charges would not hold up in court. However, instead of dropping the charges, the prosecutor attempted to force Austin into a diversion program based on charges that should never have been filed. In this situation and others like it, prosecutors should drop all charges – not search for a cost to impose upon a victim of wrongful arrest or prosecution.
I will put an end to this practice.
Establish Standards for Diversion Programs
I am committed to ending the abuse of diversion programs. I am also committed to regulating diversion programs where they exist and ensuring that they are fair to participants. Wherever possible, I will avoid imposing financial costs on program participants. If there are charges, I will ensure that they are income-based and contain indigency exceptions.
Where diversion programs are appropriate, I will seek to limit the conditions to those that are strictly necessary.
The Los Angeles Neighborhood Justice Program, for example, needs work. Drug offenses and vehicular/driving offenses should be eligible for the program, but currently are not despite the high number of both of those types of offenses.
Expanding Diversion Programs
As City Attorney, I will expand the number and type of charges that qualify defendants for pre-trial diversion. I will carefully monitor these programs – constantly evaluating and re-evaluating what works and what does not – to ensure that participants receive the supportive services they need to avoid future contact with the justice system. Wherever possible, I will avoid imposing financial costs on program participants. If there are costs, I will ensure that they are adjusted based on income and contain indigency exceptions.
I will also build upon existing diversion programs intended for specific populations, such as those who struggle with substance abuse and mental illness. Last year, the LA County Board of Supervisors requested that RAND conduct a study on whether the mentally ill population behind bars – which numbers at least 5,000 in LA County alone, if not more – should, in fact, be behind bars. RAND returned with an answer similar to that which the Office of Diversion and Reentry had arrived at one year earlier: more than 60% of this population could be safely cared for in the community, if they were provided with adequate services and housing. As City Attorney, I will follow the facts and ensure that individuals experiencing mental health crises are offered pre-trial diversion wherever possible. I will also ensure that mental health diversion programs connect participants with the appropriate government and/or nonprofit services they will need upon completion of the program.
Increase Access to Criminal Record Expungement
Under current California law, criminal records cannot be expunged; they can only be dismissed. Rather than erasing the record of one’s criminal conviction – a record that can create barriers to education, income, housing and more – the program updates your record to reflect that your guilty plea was withdrawn, a “not guilty” plea was entered in its place, probation was terminated and the case has been dismissed. Under this system, if a potential employer or landlord were to perform a background check, they could still see that a conviction took place. Moreover, the conditions for dismissal are exclusionary and limited, with only those convicted of particular crimes being eligible for the program.
I will advocate for changes to the current policy, in order to open up the process to a greater number of people and provide for a more permanent and complete expungement. For misdemeanor crimes that fall under my jurisdiction, I will implement weekly expungement sessions, where citizens with criminal records can walk in and receive help expunging their records from a team of attorneys dedicated to this task.
Our past mistakes should not define our futures. Everyone deserves a second chance.
End Cash Bail
As City Attorney, I will immediately end the practice of cash bail – a scheme which favors those with money and resources, and leaves those without them behind – and pre-trial detention for misdemeanor crimes. Cash bail criminalizes poverty. The ability of a defendant to post bail doesn’t make them any more or less dangerous, nor have these defendants been convicted of a crime. This system unfairly penalizes communities of color and working people.
Theoretically, our justice system is intended to place the burden of proof upon the accuser rather than the accused. In reality, if a defendant doesn’t have the money to pay bail or hire a defense, the burden is placed upon them to prove their innocence – and they have to wait in a jail cell until they have the opportunity to do so. This unequal system of punishment cannot be allowed to continue, and if I am elected, I will use the power of my office to ensure that no one ends up in jail because of poverty.
California passed a law that would have replaced cash bail with a risk-based algorithm in 2018. While I supported ending cash bail, I didn’t support using an algorithm to make a decision with life-altering consequences. This law was repealed via a ballot measure in November 2020.
In March 2021, however, the California Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to keep defendants incarcerated simply because they cannot afford bail. The court instructed judges to favor pretrial release and consider a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail. Based on this ruling, judges are only allowed to keep defendants locked up if “clear and convincing” evidence demonstrates that it is the only way to protect the public and ensure that the defendant shows up for court.
This decision represents an important step forward. However, the court’s ruling did not abolish the practice altogether. If I am elected City Attorney, I will join advocates and progressive prosecutors across the nation and end cash bail. City Attorney prosecutors will not ask for cash bail under any circumstances.
Reform the Punitive System of Fines & Fees
For years, jurisdictions across the country – including LA – have been using fines and fees to finance their justice systems. Fines can be imposed for traffic violations, court costs, felonies and more. When they’re left unpaid – often because people cannot afford to pay them – they grow exponentially, trapping low income people in an inescapable cycle of debt. These fees can prevent Angelenos from supporting themselves and their families, and reintegrating into society post-incarceration. Moreover, because they are flat fees, they act as a regressive tax – or, a “poverty penalty.” Excessive charges and criminal justice debt can even increase the likelihood of future contact with the criminal justice system. We must put a stop to this.
As City Attorney, I will set clear departmental guidelines to protect citizens from abuse. First of all, I will ensure that any fines and fees collected from citizens are not used to fund the City Attorney’s office. I will also ensure that the City Attorney’s office does not impose any fines and fees that will be used to fund our courts or other aspects of our criminal justice system. This is a clear conflict of interest and a miscarriage of justice.
I will advocate for legislation to outlaw drivers’ license suspension for non-payment of fines and fees and ensure that my office does not participate in such suspensions. I will advocate for ability-to-pay determinations prior to the imposition of criminal justice- related fines – and before incarceration for non-payment of fines. I will use my office to help resolve outstanding fines through other means, including applying a retroactive ability-to-pay determination to past offenses.
Lastly, I will strongly advocate for a reduction in civil citations, as well as a requirement to issue warnings before imposing penalties. I will also work to identify and cancel outstanding warrants for non-payment of fees and fines.
Increase Retroactive Case Review
If elected City Attorney, I am committed to conducting a systematic review of past misdemeanor cases handled by the City Attorney’s office in order to address mistakes, reverse convictions for crimes that would be treated differently now – for example, marijuana-related offenses – and expunge records wherever possible.
Enhance Opportunity for Resentencing
In 2018, the California Assembly passed A.B. 2492, a law that allows prosecutors to initiate resentencing proceedings. This reform gave our justice system a chance to reverse past mistakes, including thousands of draconian jail sentences that destroyed lives and families, a burden which fell particularly hard on communities of color.
However, there is a flaw in this law: while it has the power to reduce and/or end sentences, it only allows prosecutors to initiate resentencing requests. Sadly, many prosecutors have not prioritized making such requests, leaving thousands of Angelenos serving the very types of sentences this law was passed to address. I believe that incarcerated people should also be allowed to petition courts for resentencing in their cases, as it is their lives and futures which are at stake.
I will also advocate for the passage of A.B. 1245, a bill that would allow incarcerated individuals who have served 15 years of their sentence and have at least 24 months left of their sentence to petition a court for resentencing.
Reform the Discovery Process
The widespread need to reform discovery processes has become apparent, both in Los Angeles and nationwide. In the last decade, a series of wrongful convictions, partly the result of discovery errors, have come to light. Reforms should fall into two broad categories: expanding the scope of disclosure and ensuring that disclosure occurs as early as possible. California has made some progress when it comes to discovery reform – for example, the state recently criminalized certain willful discovery violations by prosecutors – but there is still room to improve. Ideally, discovery should occur within 14 days of arraignment – and, it should be explicitly required to occur before any plea is entered.
A more expansive discovery process leads to better, more just outcomes. I will form a discovery practices review committee with high-level staff dedicated to examining existing discovery practices and determining what changes are needed to implement open file and early discovery practices.
An open file policy, in particular, would resolve many of the current issues that surround discovery. Under my office’s open file policy, all criminal cases will be open to review from defense attorneys and/or pro se defendants, and my office will have administrative staff assigned to handling discovery requests on a full-time basis. Any individual, upon giving reasonable notice to the City Attorney’s office, will have the ability to review their file and make copies, under supervision from the dedicated staff.
Any work product or confidential information that does not fall under the purview of discovery will be stored in a closed envelope in its corresponding file, and that envelope will be removed from the file before it is reviewed by defense attorneys or defendants.
Attorneys and defendants will be sent a discovery notice that will contain a comprehensive list of the documents and materials contained within the case file at that moment. When new materials are added, an additional discovery notice will be sent.
Support Safe Injection Sites
I will support and encourage the use of safe injection sites. The ongoing opioid crisis has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians over the last several decades – particularly in the last 10 years. In 2020, these numbers took a dramatic turn for the worse. Nationwide, 93,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2020 – a 30% increase over the previous year. California was hit even harder: overdose deaths increased from 6,538 in 2019 to 9,538 in 2020, an increase of 46%.
We cannot leave those among us who are struggling with addiction to overdose and die in the streets. People struggling with addiction need safety and most of all, they need treatment. Safe injection sites save lives and allow folks struggling with addiction the chance to live long enough to get the help they need.
Prevent Gun Violence
As City Attorney, I will work to reduce gun violence by working closely with community groups and local leaders to implement proactive, preventative measures.
For example, I will continue the city’s current campaign to stem the flow of ghost guns and take over the case against Polymer80, one of the nation’s top sellers of ghost gun kits that allow buyers to build guns at home without complying with legal regulations such as serialization and background checks. I will ensure that my office works as closely as possible with members of the communities that are most affected by gun violence in order to listen to their concerns, their solutions and their perspectives and implement the appropriate strategies. The City Attorney cannot impose solutions from the outside without first understanding the problems.
I will also work to prevent guns from getting into the hands of children. Every day in our city, children gain access to weapons. And every day, children and adults alike are injured or even killed because of it. Gun violence is a complex problem, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But I will use the powers of my office to make Los Angeles safer for all of us.