Op-Ed: LA County Supervisors Vote to Freeze Sheriff Villanueva’s Budget Over $63 Million Deficit

Op-Ed: LA County Supervisors Vote to Freeze Sheriff Villanueva’s Budget Over $63 Million Deficit

Political courage leads to meaningful jail reform.

Published October 3rd

Written by Patrisse Cullors

On Tuesday October 1st, the LA County Board of Supervisors, who govern a jurisdiction of 10 million people with a $36 billion-dollar budget, courageously represented the people of Los Angeles. 

Their groundbreaking unanimous vote will hold the LA Sheriff accountable for his $63 million budget deficit through a mitigation plan which includes repaying the County, budget monitoring and a partial budget freeze. 

This is the first time in my lifetime, the LA Board of Supervisors has fully utilized the one governance tool over the Sheriff they do possess, budgetary oversight, to reign in the excesses of the LA Sheriff’s Department.

This kind of political courage isn’t whimsical, and it didn’t happen overnight. Decades of organizing and advocacy and litigation have brought us to this critical point, going back to the 1992 Kolt Report that detailed 359 pages of needed reforms. 

We launched the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in 2012, and through endless advocacy and old-fashioned grassroots activism we secured the establishment of a Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) in 2016. 

This year, our campaign to give real teeth to the COC and demand better treatment for incarcerated people with mental illness, Reform L.A. County Jails, has made huge strides towards stopping the rapid expansion of jails. In February, our campaign, along with other local justice advocates stopped the building of a new women’s jail hours away from the City, and in July the County agreed to cancel the construction contract for a massive new mental health jail. If the people lead, the leaders will follow. 

Reform L.A. County Jails was launched, in part, dedicated to the belief that strong public oversight of the Sheriff’s department is absolutely critical if we are to root out corruption and misconduct--and experience fully realized safety and health in our communities. 

And it is for this reason that our historic measure is on the ballot on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020: so that we, the people, are at last provided the opportunity to guarantee that all of our family members are seen and treated with the dignity and compassion all of us deserve. 

Sheriff Villanueva’s irresponsible spending is one more reason to sound the alarm about his performance since his election in November 2018. Based on a platform and promises he made, Villanueva was entrusted with a role that holds extraordinary power--and has little oversight. 

But instead of honoring the trust--and his own word--Villanueva has violated it. In under a year, his tenure is already pockmarked by corruption, the vulgar mistreatment of our family members held in jail, and now, mismanagement of taxpayer dollars. 

The LA Sheriff's annual budget is $3.5 billion, more than three times the size of LAPD, and out of 38 County departments, the Sheriff was the only one to run a deficit this year. 

Despite requests by the Board since January for a mitigation plan (see picture), the Sheriff did not rectify the most basic responsibility of any organizational leader, to balance your budget. This Sheriff, and Sheriffs around the country, operate with a sense of entitlement and impunity.

(Photo: Lynne Lyman)

The LA Sheriff’s pushback at Tuesday’s meeting lacked thoughtful engagement and critical thinking. Villanueva and his top deputies blamed the deficit on their predecessors, complained of workers compensation costs going up, and even named extra costs related to new “diversity goals” in recruitment. 

Apparently, the Department holds qualifying tests 20 times a month now in an effort to entice a more diverse pool of applicants. And yet they have 816 sworn vacancies. 

The Sheriff went on to blame other “unfunded mandates,” like the Rosas Settlement, which has LASD under federal oversight to end abuse of inmates by sheriff’s deputies and to improve chronically poor treatment of mentally ill inmates. Sound familiar? 

Perhaps the most ironic moment of the hearing was when Sheriff Villanueva stated, “Our operations are an open book.”

Meanwhile, the LA Sheriff recently launched an investigation into the very agency that is overseeing him, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), claiming that the OIG unlawfully obtained internal records.

This is a prime example of why we need even greater oversight of the LA Sheriff's Department and must invest the power to investigate and compel documents with the Civilian Oversight Commission through a vote of the people. This isn’t a radical policy, more than half the oversight bodies in the country already possess subpoena power. 

The Sheriff and some Supervisors called for expanding the Department’s budget, we will not let that happen. LA residents want to see less funding going to jails and more funding going towards mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing and jobs. 

The Reform LA Jails Measure will further reduce the Sheriff's budget by requiring the County to consider alternatives first for most people with mental illness. These savings from not jailing our most sick and vulnerable neighbors will be reinvested in to expanded community-based care.

However, we must not allow the public discourse around this to focus solely on this particular Sheriff. Regardless of who is at the helm, the LA County Sheriff’s Department is need of extensive reforms and immediate oversight. The same could be said for the vast majority of Sheriffs around the country. It’s time to rethink the Sheriff. 

(Photo: eddiesimages)

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