Leaders discuss local issues at LB NAACP meeting

U.S. Congressmember Alan Lowenthal and L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell among speakers

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Photos by Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
Eloy Oakley, chancellor of California community colleges, speaks at a Long Beach NAACP meeting on Aug. 19

The Long Beach branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) co-hosted five local leaders at a meeting Sunday to report on current issues affecting the local community.

Speakers included Alan Lowenthal, U.S. Congress member; Jim McDonnell, Los Angeles County sheriff; Eloy Oakley, chancellor of California community colleges; Doug Haubert, Long Beach city prosecutor; and Jeffrey Prang, Los Angeles County assessor.

Naomi Rainey-Pierson, president of the NAACP branch, praised the speakers while emphasizing the organization’s non-partisanship.

“These people represent us, were elected by us. They make decisions that impact us, and they’re good guys,” she said, addressing more than 50 attendees at the McBride Park community center.

The leaders spoke on topics including housing and homelessness, immigration, education and issues affecting the jail population.

Alan Lowenthal
Lowenthal expressed frustration about addressing issues that affect people under the current federal administration led by President Donald Trump, including immigration, affordable housing, health care and climate change.

“It’s a very difficult time to get things done,” he said. “It’s kind of a year of contentiousness.”

Formerly a member of the Long Beach City Council and the California State Assembly and Senate, Lowenthal has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2013, representing the 47th congressional district, which includes Long Beach.

He said one of the issues Congress has not addressed is how to deal with the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including the Dreamers, those protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), whom he supports.

Responding to a question about recent incidents of children of asylum seekers being separated from their parents at the border, Lowenthal shared that he had visited one of those detention facilities and said such separation has “destroyed” the children and their mothers.

Alan Lowenthal, U.S. Congress member, speaks at a Long Beach NAACP meeting on Aug. 19.

“We’re talking about people seeking asylum who have been victims of domestic violence or victims of gang activity, with members of their family,” he said. “People walked a thousand miles from Honduras, Guatemala, with no money, just asking for safety, just asking for asylum. […] The crime was not their seeking asylum; the crime and who should be accountable were the people who separated those children.”

Lowenthal also talked about lawmakers stalling in protecting civil rights and women’s rights as well as health care, noting that Republicans keep introducing measures to eliminate Obamacare.

“This administration wants to undo everything that President Obama has done, […] not based upon what has been done in terms of the outcomes and the measurement of the products or whether it’s been effective, but it’s just because Obama did it and Trump wants to end it,” he said. “That has to end.”

Lowenthal also said there is an affordable-housing crisis, which he said was one of the causes of homelessness.

“A lot of the homeless are out there on the streets because of specific problems,” he said. “But there is a significant number of homeless that cannot afford to live [in a home]. They have two jobs, they live in the back of their cars, they’re out on the streets, they lost their housing. We have a real problem with affordable housing.”

Lowenthal said making change in these areas starts at the local level, but he feels that the federal government is not supporting issues his constituents are most concerned about.

“Most of the things that get solved in people’s lives first happen at the city level, so the federal government has to work with the City,” he said. “We have to come and have meetings just like this and listen to people and figure out how we’re going to help our cities and our state. […] Having said that, this administration has drastically cut money for health care, for housing, for immigration, for education, and it has to stop.”

Eloy Oakley
Former Long Beach City College chancellor-superintendent Oakley was appointed chancellor of all 114 (soon to be 115) California community colleges in 2016.

Oakley said his office has put together a “vision for success,” focusing on issues of race and ethnicity to improve outcomes for minority low-income and first-generation students.

“We have a strong focus right now on closing the achievement gaps and focusing attention on the fate of students who have been left behind in our community colleges,” he said. “They are black and African-American students; they are Latino students; they are Asian students […], many of which are here in communities like Long Beach.”

Oakley said two recently implemented changes will help enable such students to better succeed.

The first, he said, is a new funding formula that reduces the amount of money allocated to colleges based on enrollment to only 60 percent, with the other 40 percent based on how well a college serves low-income communities of color.

“Communities like Long Beach or L.A. that have large populations of low-income students will receive additional funding,” he said.

Oakley said half of the 40-percent portion is a reward structure to ensure a college gets such students credentialed.

“That was a very intentional effort to change the incentive structure for our colleges and to get them to focus specific attention on first-generation students, low-income students, in communities like Long Beach,” he said.

The second major change Oakley discussed is a new law– Assembly Bill 705– that changes how students are placed in English and math courses. Instead of being placed in remedial courses based on incoming assessment tests, students must be placed in courses based on their high school records.

“[For] a black student who enters college two levels below transfer-level math, the chances of that student getting a degree are less than 10 percent,” Oakley said.

Oakley further noted that assessment tests have served to undermine minority student progress.

“Standardized tests, as we’ve come to learn, have devastating effects on communities of color,” he said. “Those students, even though they did well in high school, […] didn’t come to a community college prepared to take an assessment test [and] that assessment test doesn’t really measure whether or not they’re going to be successful. […] That test is not correct. All of their experience throughout high school gives you more information about that student.”

Oakley also said, in answer to a question, that there are mechanisms in place to make sure the funding works and that colleges are prepared to implement new placement methods that don’t rely on assessment tests.

“All these changes really have a focus on increasing equity and outcomes for students in California,” he said. “Nearly every job that’s being created now requires some sort of college credential.”

Jim McDonnell, Los Angeles County sheriff, addresses the Long Beach NAACP meeting on Aug. 19.

Jim McDonnell
McDonnell, who served as Long Beach police chief before becoming L.A. County sheriff four years ago, gave an update on pressing law-enforcement issues, including how methamphetamines and opioids are leading to mental-health issues and deaths in the county’s burgeoning jail population.

McDonnell noted that the county currently has about 17,000 inmates in custody.

“That is a lot of people,” he said. “And we’re trying to be able to do what we can for those in our care and custody by giving them re-entry skills, by giving them education, by setting them up for success.”

McConnell also said that the County’s programs include drug-and-alcohol abuse treatment and psychological health services, but the jail system’s mentally ill population is increasing by 10 percent per year.

“We are the largest mental-health institution in America, if not the world, and we weren’t designed to be one at all,” he said.

McConnell said that, according to mental-health professionals, the cause of the increase is most likely synthetic-drug use, especially methamphetamines.

“What it means for us is that 31 percent of our jail population are dealing with serious mental-health crises,” he said. “We need to be in a position where we have alternatives to incarceration to be able to give the treatment necessary to break that cycle. And that means community-based mental health care and treatment.”

But he said that very few communities want to have such facilities in their neighborhoods.

“That’s an ongoing challenge we’re going to have to address in whatever way makes the most sense,” McConnell said. “To continue doing what we’ve been doing is not a recipe for success, particularly in light of the fact that that population is climbing so dramatically.”

McConnell added that a new challenge facing the county’s jail population is opioid overdoses, especially from fentanyl, which he said killed the majority of last year’s 72,000 overdose victims, mostly on the east coast.

“We are starting to see that here now,” he said. “Fentanyl is legitimately a stage-four cancer pain-management drug that is exceptionally strong […] now being produced in China and shipped through the mail here or shipped to the cartels. […] It’s cheap, and you can cut heroin with it and the drug dealers extend how much money they can make from a kilo of heroin.”

McConnell said fentanyl is also finding its way into cocaine and other drugs such as marijuana.

“Five or six grains of what look like salt are enough to be a fatal overdose,” he said. “And we’re starting to see this now being smuggled into the jail system.”

He said that some people orchestrate their arrests for the sole purpose of smuggling the drug into jails for the Mexican mafia– such as in a balloon the size of a silver dollar– and know how to evade detection, such as by moving during an MRI body scan.

“In June alone, we saved, in our custody, 14 people who had overdosed,” McConnell said. “It’s not on most people’s radar, but it should be.”

Doug Haubert, Long Beach city prosecutor, speaks at a Long Beach NAACP meeting on Aug. 19

Doug Haubert
In his role as city prosecutor for eight years, Haubert spoke of trying to divert people, especially younger people, away from the jail system.

“I have tried everything to be the most community-based prosecutor in the city,” he said. “I am very proud of the things my office has done in the last eight years.”

His efforts, he said, have included hiring local interns and having law enforcement do more social work such as identifying substance-abuse problems and mental disorders to connect people to services instead of to the criminal-justice system.

“Here in Long Beach, we are lucky to have one of two statewide pilot programs,” Haubert said. “We are doing pre-booking diversion of people who have drug-abuse problems in […] north Long Beach. We’re measuring the results for 22 months and […] we think it will show that it’s more effective to connect people from the street level directly into services that includes housing. So it’s a housing-first model.”

Haubert also described his office’s unique PATH (Promising Adults, Tomorrow’s Hope) program, implemented two years ago, that moves cases for those 18 to 24 years of age out of court and into work opportunities.

“The goal is to help them become more employable,” he said. “If that means getting them back into school so they can get that high school degree, if it means getting them into [Long Beach] City College, […] anything we can do to return them from this program more employable than they went into it, we believe would be better for public safety.”

Haubert also said his office received a federal grant from the Obama administration six years ago to fund a gang-intervention program for the very young.

“The kids who are missing schools when they are 10, 11, 12 years old, those are the kids who are most likely to be recruited by gangs,” he said. “Those are the kids who we know, if we don’t keep an eye on them, are not going to graduate from school; they’re going to be less employable. Statistics show they’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.”

Haubert’s office also provides post-conviction relief and expungement workshops, he said.

“Giving them opportunities– that’s absolutely one of the most important, effective strategies,” he said. “People join gangs when they see no hope. They’re not thinking of a job– they’re not thinking of graduating high school. They don’t see a future in that for them. […] If they just graduate from high school, statistics show they’re going to be OK. Eighty percent of those in state prisons didn’t graduate from high school. […] The solution is kind of simple– get them back in school.”

Jeffrey Prang
Prang, who has served as L.A. County assessor for four years and is up for re-election in November, said his staff of 1,400 assesses the fair-market value of 2.5 million parcels of property in the county, valued at about $1.5 trillion, which generates $15 billion in property taxes that are allocated to schools, local governments and services.

Prang noted that the real-estate market has increased by 6.6 percent, or $93 billion, in the county in the last year and 5.6 percent in Long Beach.

But he said that many residents don’t take advantage of programs that would help reduce their property taxes.

“There are a number of programs voters of California voted in to save money on property taxes, including the homeowner’s exemption,” he said. “If you own your home and it’s your principal place of residence, you qualify for a homeowner’s exemption. It’ll save you about 70 bucks a year on your taxes. However, about one-third of all homeowners in L.A. County do not apply for it.”