The Board of Supervisors approved its annual supplemental budget, including a significant initial investment of $72 million to launch the County’s groundbreaking Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) Initiative. Former Superior Court Judge Songhai Armstead joined LA County as the new director of the Initiative on September 28.

The Supervisors voted to create the Initiative last March after receiving the recommendations of a report based on a year-long process involving County officials, community leaders, and system-impacted individuals tasked with developing a roadmap for alternatives to incarceration. The “Care First, Jail Last” report recommended the establishment of community-based systems of care and treatment in order to reduce the number of men and women in jail suffering from untreated mental illness or substance use disorder. Over the last five years, the County’s Office of Diversion and Re-Entry laid the groundwork for this approach through its programs that have already directed thousands of people away from jails and into mental health and social services.

LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, author of the motion that created the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative, said, “I am very pleased to see the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative launch with such strong leadership and significant funding. Innovative programs are needed to address long-standing racial inequities that disproportionately incarcerate people who need treatment and housing. LA County can make communities healthier and safer with a different, research-based approach, and this Initiative will lead the way.”

A study released last week from UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods demonstrated that such inequities can actually be quite costly. The report found that, in 2019, simply booking Black people – who make up 8% of County residents but currently represent nearly one-third of the jail population – cost taxpayers $154 million.

“For far too long, the County has been lopsided in its resource allocation – despite knowing that no one gets well in a cell,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “This budget represents a significant step towards balancing investments in community services, health services, as well as accountable and responsible law enforcement services.”

Former Judge Songhai Armstead, the ATI’s first director, will coordinate among multiple departments and community stakeholders to oversee implementation of the ATI recommendations. Armstead, who was appointed to the Superior Court in 2015, has been instrumental in creating innovative programs that assist justice-involved veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and those with mental health and substance use disorders—all with a focus on helping people avoid incarceration by getting them the treatment and housing resources they need.

Tuesday’s supplemental budget approval also included $16.9m in funding for the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, which has led the County’s diversion and reentry efforts over the last five years, and an additional commitment of $15m for the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative and the Office of Diversion and Reentry which will be made available in February 2021.