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October 20, 2023 15 mins
Aired October 8, 2023: EJ talks to Judge Songhai Armstead. The Justice Care and Opportunities Department (JCOD) is the County’s new central agency unifying LA County’s efforts to serve vulnerable justice-impacted people and communities and drive forward the Board of Supervisors’ vision of Care First, Jails Last.
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Episode Transcript

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Welcome back to I heard solcow monywas EJ and in person, I have
Judge Armstead. Hi. Hello.Can I just say it is an honor
for you to be up here chattingwith us. It is an absolute honor
for me to be here, andI'm very grateful. Thank you so much
for having me. So tell mea little bit about yourself. I am
Judge Sanghai Armstead. I am aretired judge from the Los Angeles Superior Court.

My background is everything from fashion topsychology to law. I was a
Superior Court judge downtown for a littlebit over five years, and a couple
of years ago I made the decisionto step down from the bench, going
to retirement status to really work onproviding services and alternatives to the traditional justice

system, and that's what I'm doingnow. Do you feel like it was
a hard decision to step away fromit. It wasn't a hard decision.
I would say the hardest part isbeing is the actual doing right. So
people can have ideas about policy andprinciples, but the implementation and the changing
of the direction of a system thathas been consistently going in one direction is
quite difficult. It's a fun challengeI would tell you I'm never bored because

I always have so much to do. I gotta say it's really interesting.
I love when I talk to judgesor just hear about judges that look like
me, because I feel like itjust shows people that anything is possible.
I one hundred percent believe that almostanything, that almost absolutely anything as possible.
I mean, if you know mybackstory, I'm not your traditional judge,

right, and so I'm so gratefulfor the opportunity. And I think
that the only limits we have arethe ones that we said for ourselves.
Absolutely, I think society has setlike what judges look like, and I
let me tell you, you definitelydon't fit the mold of what you know
society has put on us with youknow what I'm saying. I've heard that
a thousand times. It's like,you don't look like a judge. You're

too everything whatever, You're too youngto be a judge, too female to
be a judge, African American tobe a judge, you're too pretty to
be a judge. You don't looklike a judge. I've heard that over
and over and over again. Trustbad can control and command a presence in
any courtroom that's out there. Notnecessarily that, ye, but it's just
it's so refreshing when you see it, you know what I mean, It's
so refreshing, and I'm so gladthat you're here to talk about The director

of the new La County Justice Careand Opportunities Department tell us a little bit
about that. Sure. So,originally the board wanted to have an office
that kind of looked at what arethe possibilities around all turned to incarceration.
So I first left the bench tosort of work in this office is a
very small office. It was meand a couple of other people. Out
of that. The board decided Marchof last year that they wanted two new

county departments. One department's singularly focusedon youth seventeen and under. The other
focus on anyone eighteen and above.So between March and July one of last
year, we stood up the youthdepartment Department of Youth Development, and then
by November first, we stood upthe Justice Care and Opportunities Department. So

I am now the new director ofthe Justice Care and Opportunity Department. That
department is really focused on three majorareas. The first area is creating opportunities
for people in the space of prevention, diversion out of the justice system,
and then re entry back into community. And it's really about having people having
the opportunities and the supports they needso that they can be productive members of

society, right. And it's reallysort of creating an equal playing field,
right, so people who are struggling, they have opportunities to exit the justice
system. It's really sort of filteringand sorting out those who really want to
turn their lives around, right,and those who may or may not.
That's one focus. The other focusis that if everyone raised their hand and
said I would like housing, Iwant support, I want to help with
substance abuse, I want more casemanagement, I want more job training,

if everyone who needed it raised theirhand, we don't have enough supports in
the county yet. So the secondfocus is really helping to develop the more
providers and more opportunities, right andsort of building that. And the third
one is helping to fund those folks. Right. How do you run a
business so a person can have aheart for service but may not know How
how do you do a board,how do you apply for grants, how
to do the contracting right, howdo you develop a service that delivers to

the standards that everyone is treated andgets that right level of service to have
the best outcomes. And so thethird function is really funding them and helping
to develop those organizations. So howdo you do that? Because I feel
like it's important people need these services. Of course there's not enough to go
around, but how do you spreadthe word and how do you make that
happen? So we do a numberof things. So we started an incubation

academy so that nonprofit, community basedorganizations or faith based organizations can actually go
through an academy to learn how doyou run a business, how do you
apply for grants? How do youdeliver services right? Like what's expected?
You know? How do you collectdata? The second thing we have is
if I don't know if you're familiar, but in November of twenty twenty,

Los Angeles voters past something called MeasureJ. Right, So Measure J separated
some fundings from the county. It'sten percent of funds that are not already
designated for another purpose in the budgetto provide grants and fund nonprofit and faith
based or oranizations that deliver services.So we also oversee that batch of funding.
And what's exciting about that. Thefirst allocation of funding went out,

it's fifty five million over three years. One hundred and eighteen organizations were selected
to receive that funding. So that'sbatch one. Match two will be about
one hundred million over three years.We don't have those organizations identified yet.
And a third batch's over one hundredmillion over three years, and that application
just opened up on Monday. Doyou feel like your career as a judge

definitely helped you in this position thatyou have right now, one hundred percent,
you know, and even the programsthat I ran as a prosecutor as
well. So I ran programs likehomeless Court for the City of la We
had programs that diverted veterans who werereturning folks who were struggling with like PTSD
and other but it was manifesting itselfin criminal behavior, right. We had
programs that dealt with people who werestruggling with mental health and substitu disorders.

So I'd say all of those experiencesas well as sort of seeing, you
know, what the benefits were,you know, what were some of the
challenges in the justice system, becausethey were I mean, I had a
gang diversion court. I had someother diversion courts where I saw people and
I'm like, you know what,I don't think jailer prison is going to
fix you. You're just going toend it back in the system. How
can you put supports and structure aroundyou to help you. One be accountable

for the behavior, right, becauseaccountability is important. Two make your communters
too safe, and then three giveyou the supports who need so that you
don't end up in the situation again. Right. I feel like that is
a crucial part of being a judge, actually judging a situation and going deeper.
I know it's easier to judge somethingoff of what this person just did.
They just committed a crime its surface. But when you can look deeper

and be like, this is notwho you are, and I know that
it's not who you are because ofyour circumstance and things like that. To
look deeper and to be able tobe like, well, let's help you,
as opposed to just give you asentence and you're in jail and not
doing anything one hundred percent. SoI always tell people a charge tells you
very little about a case, Right, You know what I mean. A
charge tells you very little about acase. So you don't know a person's

intent, you don't know how itaffected people, you don't know the facts
around it, right, And sothere are a lot of different things that
can fall underneath the same charge,right, And so it's really being able
to hear from all sides. Ithink, you know, in opportunities where
you can have a restorative approach tojustice, I think that's really important,
where you make the person who youknow is harmed whole, but you also

help make the person who committed theharm whole as well, right, so
that they don't reoffend. I mean, that's really what the goal would be.
That's interesting, that's so interesting.I have you ever taken cases home
and just thought about like something overand over and over again. So I'm
an overthinker, right, So Idon't sleep a lot, which is probably

not good. Yeah, So I'mconstantly in thought. I'm like, how
can we do this better? Howcan we approach this differently? You know?
And so I spent a lot oftime in that space, right,
And we're really trying to change wholesystems. We're trying to change whole behaviors
and sometimes in some places, we'retrying to change generational harm. Right,
We're trying to teach the people thatthere are their opportunities out there. And

really, how you opened up thisconversation, it's like possibilities are limitless,
and sometimes people don't understand their purpose, right, And so one of the
things that I tried to do,particularly when I had younger people in my
court, is like, you're hereon the planet for a reason, Like
there's something really good that you canoffer us. We just need to open
up the space that you can figureout what that is and help you support
you so that you can step intothat space. Right, if we all

did the things we were called todo on the planet, then the planet
would be different, right. ButI think people miss opportunities. They have
limiting beliefs, right. They've experiencedtrauma and harm, right, and so
it's like trying to help heal thatso that they can be who they were
actually called to be. Do mana favorite and tell me about this pre
trial services that you guys just launchedthe new hotline in the website. Absolutely,

so our first step towards rolling outwhat pre trial services really should look
like We have developed a support center, so if a person is exiting the
justice system, they've been booked inreally or anything else, they have an
opportunity to call our number. It'sone eight three three lac JCOD. Once
again, it's one eight three tothree lac JCOD and they can call between

six am to eleven pm, sevendays a week, and we will do
a number of things. One isthat we will help them with court reminders,
because a lot of people make theirsituation worse by not showing up to
court when they're supposed to. Wewill help them with transportation and this is
transportation to housing if they've been releasedfrom custody. This is transportation to court

so make sure they don't miss theircourt date. This is transportation to childcare
because sometimes childcare is a you know, you know, I can't get my
child a childcare and make it tocourt on time. And the other place
people get in trouble a lot isthat they don't check in with their probation
and role officers. We'll get themthere as well. So those are the
four places that we will provide transportation. In addition, we will help them
with intensive case management and the manyof those case managers have already overcome and

been to the same journey, andso it's kind of like when I worked
in our veterans. We're going totalk about btle buddies, like someone who's
been through the journey and knows howto get on the other side. So
like, Okay, let's help youwith housing, let's help you with services.
They'll link them to the case casemanager as well, and so those
are some of the main places thatthey'll get supports right now, and we'll
continuing to expand and build, butwe launched that in a very short period

of time, but it's already out. It's interesting because it's something that we've
never had before. And I feellike sometimes we all just need some help.
And I think a lot of peoplethink that it's bs when you're talking
about I didn't have child of careor I Honestly, there is a lot
going on in people's minds and sometimesthings just slip through the cracks and we
just need someone to be there togive them that extra push and that extra

help, you know what I meanhundred percent. And you know the thing
that I realized and I took forgranted, is that some people don't even
understand the justice system, right.They find themselves in this situation that's overwhelming
and fearful, and they don't knowwhat to expect. They don't know how
they should be prepared. They're scaredbecause they have this in their mind.
They're going accord. They're going tobe greeted by this judge who doesn't necessarily
he has probably or he or shehas a ton of care. They're only

reading what's on the paper and theydon't know them and they they're scared of
what's going to happen. They're notcourt people, right, and so two
things that we've done to address that. The other things we set up the
call center. The other thing weset up is justice connect dot org,
So www dot justiceconnect dot org isalso a website that will explain what to
expect, what happens along the way. We also have a resource page,

so if a person is like,I want to talk to attorney before I
go, how do I get ahold of the PUBLM defender? We have
all sorts of resources that's available onthis website as well. You can also
press a button be connected to thecall center and I suggest this is my
recommendation, not legal advice, letme be clear, is that if a
person connects to a case manager andI can just tell you how I ran

my court, if you come inalready working on the issue that brought you
to the justice in the first place, your case, for me was always
looked at and very differently than theperson who walks in off the street and
they have no plan, no idea, you know that sort of thing.
And so I suggest, if youhave free services available to you, by
the way, these services are allfree, take advantage of them. It's
all about being proactive because if youlike, let's say, god forbid,

I get caught on a drug charge, right, and I come in your
courtroom and I'm saying, I knowthat this happened, this has never happened
before, but I am taking stepsto you know, reduce drug use by
going to rehab, by talking toa what's the word treatment provider, case
a case manager, talking to acase manager. And I definitely feel like
somebody would be like, oh,he's doing he doesn't want this to happen

again, right, let's judge him, you know differently. You know what
I'm saying. You know, it'sfunny. One of my friends always when
I use these acknowledge. They said, Yeah, it's just like a parent,
like you messed up. But you'relike, look, mom, I
know I'd missed that homework assignment,but now I'm using a calendar. I'm
you know, I've talked to theteacher. I've done these things to fix
the problem. The consequences they're probablygoing to be a little bit less than
if you're like, I don't know, you know what I mean. I

know there are a lot of servicesout here what you've been telling us about
for the last past couple of minutes, that are here to help people,
which is great, But I thinka lot of times we also have to
put in the work too. Youhave to go out and reach out to
these services. You can't just expectpeople to reach out to you at the
courtroom one hundred percent, you know. And it's an interesting balance between saying

I need help and also being responsibleand accountability. Right So, I think,
you know, taking responsibility and beingaccountable is part of the healing and
restorative process. Right So, Ifeel like I can talk to you literally
all day, do me a favorand tell me what do you hope this
new department will change in La County. So I'm hoping that it changes the

culture. So I'm hoping that longterm that everyone who wants services, we
are able to serve them and tohelp them. Right. And so by
that, we're going to make ourcommunity safer. Right, by that,
we're going to reduce recidivism. Right, By that, we will help reduce
the populations of those who are incarcerated. Right, and by that will have

more productive communities and we'll have morefolks ready to work. Right. Uh
huh. Is there anything that youwant to discuss that we did not talk
about on the program today. Ithink the things that I would like to
just highlight, right is one isthat if you know someone who has touched
the justice system in any way oryou know or may need some resources,
I would encourage them to reach outto one eight three three lac JCOD.

I would also encourage them to goand check out the resources available at justiceconnect
dot org. So I think that'sone area. The other areas that I
would encourage them to follow us onat lac JCOD to see all of our
social media because everything, all ofour highlights are always going to be on
our social media. Also at ourwebsite, which is JCOD dot La County

dot gov. And the reason I'mpointing people these places because there are a
number of other things. We havea fire camp that's launching. We're taking
applications right now for folks that areinterested in the fire service. We are
targeting those it's open to anyone,but we're targeting those who are eighteen to
twenty seven years old, who mighthave formerly had touches with a justice system,
who are former foster youth or transitioningout of foster youth, or who

are returning home veterans. So we'retrying to really capture folks that may be
at risk and falling into the systemand giving them opportunities to completely change their
lives and the trajectory of the livesof those of their family members and those
that they love. Judge Armstead,I feel like I am so empowered after
listening to you, listening to yourtalk, I feel like there is so
much great information justiceconnect dot org oryou can call one eight thirty three LACJCOD.

Thank you so much for coming inhere and just chatting with us and
just spreading so much good information andletting people know that there is help out
there. For them. Thank youso much for having me
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