OUR VALUES & VISION

About La Defensa

La Defensa is a femme-led 501(c)(4) advocacy organization dedicated to shifting Los Angeles County’s reliance on criminalization and incarceration towards systems of care that center human dignity. We defend the presumption of innocence through policies that challenge pretrial detention, we advocate for local and state budgets that reflect our values and we challenge judicial power by building public resources and electoral power. Our work is informed by the legacy of the communities we belong to: Chicanx, queer, immigrant, undocumented, working class people with incarcerated loved ones.

Our Approach

We believe transformation can be achieved through the following:

  1. Culture Shift & Narrative Change: We believe change begins with our loved ones and community. We support our communities’ learning by developing public education resources that help inspire them to imagine different approaches to public safety. We invest in cross-movement collaboration and grassroots organizing that empowers impacted community members and builds public support for liberatory policies.

  2. Policy and Budget Advocacy: We advance bold pretrial reform policies that shift power and funding away from law enforcement and private interests and into the hands of our community. We challenge the funding streams that fuel harm by advocating for state and local budgets that align with the values of racial, gender and economic justice.

  3. Power Building: We work to shift power away from the carceral system and into the hands of community by building public accountability platforms, educating and mobilizing under-represented voters, and uplifting electoral candidates that align with our values.

Our Values

We believe in a broad anti-racist, intersectional-feminist, and anti-capitalist movement led by the people most impacted by criminalization, economic injustice, and other forms of state violence and control.

We believe in the importance of investment in community power that thrives on promoting health, wellness, love of our communities, transformative justice, and community accountability.

We approach our work with an abolitionist lens, we will not build things we will have to dismantle in the future, with the goal of reducing the scope and power of the legal injustice system until we are all free.

We will not leave community members behind.

We cannot accept positions that isolate or exclude certain members of our community. We do not support positions that harden conditions or policies for those who are already among the most marginalized or oppressed.

We conduct our analysis and strategic movements with the understanding that white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy maintain the status quo.

We thrive on collaboration, inclusivity, and finding areas of joint struggle with allies who may not share all our same politics. We strive to make our work accessible, relevant, and inspiring to people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

OUR VISION FOR CHANGE

Los Angeles is the epicenter of mass incarceration. With nearly 13,000 people in cages, Los Angeles has the largest jail system in the entire country. Nearly half of the people held in LA County jails are pretrial, meaning they are legally innocent and have not been convicted. Thousands of people in the Los Angeles County jail system are there simply because they cannot afford to pay for their freedom through bail. 

While ending the use of money bail is an important piece of the nationwide movement for decarceration, we understand that ending money bail is not enough to end incarceration in LA County. Law enforcement special interest groups, private business, and elected officials all have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, while our communities approach a record number of jail deaths, face record levels of houselessness and economic inequality.

La Defensa believes neither wealth nor profiling should determine a person’s freedom. In order to decarcerate the largest jail population in the country, the County and State must take bold action to uphold the presumption of innocence, develop an accessible community-based system of care, and invest in the economic development of communities impacted by criminalization and economic divestment.

To that end, our work in 2023 / 2024 will focus on challenging judicial power, expanding public access to support tools, and increasing community control of public funding to invest in community-based care.

 

Challenging Judicial Power Through Legislation

Judicial Term Limits – The California court system consists of the local superior courts in each of California’s 58 counties, the 6 districts of the Courts of Appeal, and the State Supreme Court. Superior court judges are eligible for (re)election every 6 years. Given that judicial seats are rarely challenged through the electoral process, voters often make their selections based on factors such as name familiarity. Superior Court judges are functionally able to remain in power until they choose to retire. 

La Defensa seeks to challenge the practice of lifetime appointments to the bench by passing state policy limiting the number of terms a Superior Court judge can remain on the bench. This will allow the State to more rapidly diversify the judiciary to better reflect the demographics and experiences of the population, remove judicial officers who have longer histories maintaining the power of the institution, and shift the culture of the judiciary towards that of social change. Setting the precedent of judicial term limits at the local courts also helps set precedent and build political power toward the national movement for term limits for other elected and appointed offices beyond the judiciary.

Data on Judicial Decisions – Additionally, data on judicial decisions is not publicly accessible. This lack of transparency has limited our ability to track the social impact of individual judges and the cumulative trends of judicial behavior, outside of community reporting. In order to present the full picture of judicial behavior, the public needs access to reporting on court decision making. To that end, La Defensa aims to pass state legislation that makes data on judicial decisions public, similar to the reporting provided by the state of NY. This data would be integrated into our Rate My Judge platform so the public is able to see both the qualitative and quantitative data on judicial decision making in CA. 

Challenging Judicial Power through Public Accountability:

Rate My Judge – In 2021, we launched RateMyJudge.LA, a website enabling community members to rate and review every Superior Court judge in Los Angeles County. Our objectives include promoting transparency and accountability within the LA County judicial system through this community-powered watchdog website.

We plan to expand RMJ into federal courts, beginning with immigration courts in Los Angeles County, and potentially extend its reach to other regions of California, beginning with the Inland Empire, a region of CA with a high level of need and impact from incarceration. This expansion plan is in response to requests from partner organizations working on immigration rights in Los Angeles and criminal justice reform in the Inland Empire, who have stated an urgent need for RMJ in their respective court systems. 

Our commitment lies in empowering everyday people with the training and tools needed to hold the judiciary accountable. In a climate where basic human and civil rights are systematically undone by a largely conservative judiciary, we understand that challenging judicial power at the local level is not only a necessary component of ending California’s reliance on incarceration – it is critical to building the people power necessary to challenge judicial power at every level of government.  

Court Watch LA – In 2023, we adopted responsibility for the Court Watch LA program from the National Lawyers Guild LA, a community power-building model focused on enhancing accountability and transparency in the judicial system. We train and empower Court Watchers to observe judicial behavior in courtrooms, collect data, and share their findings with the public.

Court Watch LA aims to educate community members around court proceedings while raising awareness about the criminalization of poverty and houselessness, including issues related to fines, fees, and predatory bail-setting practices. We work to shine a light on the disproportionate treatment and punishment of marginalized communities, including Black, Indigenous, Latine individuals, women, 2 Spirit and LGBTQIA+ people, and other marginalized Angelenos. We also work to expose the influence that law enforcement and elected officials have on the judicial system, and hold them accountable for advancing mass incarceration and criminalization. In addition to data collection, the program provides court support to impacted families who would like the court proceedings of their loved ones monitored by our trained court watchers. The presence of court observers provides transparency, but additionally, “packing courts” may also influence judicial behavior and the outcome of an individual’s case. 

In tandem with our on-the-ground court watching efforts, we advance political education for the general public about the intergenerational harms of the court system on marginalized communities. To this end, we are partnering with local and national organizations to advance storytelling and narrative shift efforts about the need for judicial transformation. Our communications use data collected in courtrooms to connect the dots between court house processes and outcomes, and the impacts these systems have on our communities. This storytelling aims to inspire new people — and re-energize those already committed — to take action to combat courtroom injustices. 

La Defensa seeks to challenge the practice of lifetime appointments to the bench by passing state policy limiting the number of terms a Superior Court judge can remain on the bench. This will allow the State to more rapidly diversify the judiciary to better reflect the demographics and experiences of the population, remove judicial officers who have longer histories maintaining the power of the institution, and shift the culture of the judiciary towards that of social change. Setting the precedent of judicial term limits at the local courts also helps set precedent and build political power toward the national movement for term limits for other elected and appointed offices beyond the judiciary.

Data on Judicial Decisions – Additionally, data on judicial decisions is not publicly accessible. This lack of transparency has limited our ability to track the social impact of individual judges and the cumulative trends of judicial behavior, outside of community reporting. In order to present the full picture of judicial behavior, the public needs access to reporting on court decision making. To that end, La Defensa aims to pass state legislation that makes data on judicial decisions public, similar to the reporting provided by the state of NY. This data would be integrated into our Rate My Judge platform so the public is able to see both the qualitative and quantitative data on judicial decision making in CA. 

Challenging Judicial Power through Elections

The Justice PAC by La Defensa, a project of Tides Advocacy – In 2022, La Defensa built the first PAC dedicated to supporting progressive, community-rooted candidates for the Los Angeles Superior Court. Last year, the Justice PAC supported the first iteration of “The Defenders of Justice”, a slate of progressive judicial candidates, and successfully supported the election of LA County’s first Public Defender ever elected to the LA County Superior Court – Judge Holly Hancock. Building on this work, this year La Defensa launched CA’s first judicial candidate training program in partnership with LA Forward, and will be supporting at least three graduates of the program to run for LA County Superior Court in 2024.

Voter EducationBuilding off of our work in the 2022 electoral cycle, we plan to develop voter education content, including videos and voter guides, to help inform and mobilize LA County voters to engage down the ballot, including judicial elections. 

Expanding Public Tools

Court Reminders Standards Bill – Court notification systems are a powerful and cost-effective tool to help those in the pretrial system return to court. Court reminder systems/processes across the state vary wildly and have recently proliferated but with no regulation regarding who they provide reminders to and how. Additionally, there are no data protections for the majority of these systems/processes. We plan to move state legislation that would create a minimum standard for court reminder systems across the state, would require data collection and reporting to evaluate said systems, and would exempt all information collected for the purpose of a court reminder from the Truth in Evidence provision in the State Constitution. 

La Defensa’s Transformative Organizing Conversations (TOC) project is a combined educational and community engagement model designed to reach communities in Los Angeles County that have historically been disenfranchised or misinformed by tough-on-crime narratives, fear-mongering and systemic oppression. Recognizing the power of dialogue in shaping perspectives, TOC aims to create a platform for open, respectful, and transformative conversations. Through curated conversations and educational resources, TOC raises awareness about critical issues, encouraging informed perspectives and actions. Participants are trained on how to constructively engage in difficult conversations with their loved ones through deep listening and maintaining somatic and emotional awareness.

Investing in Care

Participatory Budgeting – La Defensa is the co-founder and anchor organization of the ReimagineLA Coalition. In 2020, the coalition passed Measure J, which allocates 10% of locally generated revenue in Los Angeles County for community-based resources, including housing, youth development, mental health treatment, pretrial services and small business support. The coalition has been leading the implementation of Measure J and pushing the county to adopt a participatory budgeting model for the budgeting process of Measure J (also known as Care First Community Investment).

Participatory budgeting is a community-based process designed to democratize government budgeting by empowering local communities with decision making over their budgets. In partnership with Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell (District 2) we will be launching and leading a Participatory Budgeting (PB) process designed specifically to have those with lived experience such as foster youth, transitional-aged youth, and those experiencing houselessness at the center of budget decisions over resourcing that impacts their. As we have seen through previous program and policy work, ensuring that we center individuals with lived experience in the decision-making structure is critical. Through this process we are working to:

  • Emphasizing public ownership of government resources: Direct available resources in a manner which residents feel is most urgently needed; trust grassroots groups to manage projects.
  • Deepen democracy: Increase the volume, quality, and longevity of residents’ engagement in city governance.
  • Improve trust in government: Enhance transparency and accountability in budgeting decisions.
  • Build stronger communities: Connect funding to community-based organizations and local context by incorporating on-the-ground community knowledge ー improving chances of successful and sustained outcomes that matter most to people.

The process will begin in the 4th quarter of 2023 and conclude in the 3rd quarter of 2024. The goal is to distribute at least $2M of philanthropic and public funding to two unincorporated, high-need communities in the 2nd Supervisorial District.

Budget Advocacy – Through the ReimagineLA Coalition in Los Angeles, and the Budget to Save Lives Coalition at the state level, La Defensa will continue to support budgets that reflect our values. This includes advocating for AB109 funding to be shifted from Probation and Sheriff’s budgets to community-based services, ensuring that Measure J is fully funded at a rate of $900 million of unrestricted county funding every year, and that the Alternatives to Incarceration recommendations are realized through adequate funding. In order to create a pathway for this transformative shift, we support the development of a “just transition” vision and policies for decarceration at the state and local levels.