Sebastian Hernandez/UCLA

The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA is under new leadership for the first time in 16 years with the appointment of history professor Kelly Lytle Hernández as interim director. Under her direction, the center will focus on supporting research that centers around two critical themes of life and struggle in the modern black world — work and justice.

“During my time at the Bunche Center, we will advance a variety of projects in the field of African American Studies, including research on the African American unemployment crisis as well as research that advances the movement to end mass incarceration in the United States,” Lytle Hernández said.

The Bunche Center becomes home to Million Dollar Hoods, a project Lytle Hernández launched last September. It is the first research project to map the cost of incarceration in Los Angeles. Originally launched tracking data from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and now with recently added Los Angeles Police Department and Long Beach Police Department data, the mapping project traces arrests based on where the arrested persons are from and on what charges as well as how much it costs to lock them up.

The results are eye-opening.

The data, presented on an interactive website, shows that Los Angeles County communities are investing billions of dollars in policing and incarcerating people with health crises like addiction and mental health emergencies. And the bulk of this spending is concentrated in few neighborhoods, like South Central Los Angeles, where LAPD and the sheriff’s department spent more than $500,000,000 jailing residents between 2010 and 2015. Drug possession and DUI are the leading causes of imprisonment in most of the neighborhoods where departments have spent more than $1 million per year on incarceration.

“This is a wasted investment, diverting much-needed resources away from mental health services, educational opportunities, safe housing and living-wage work,” said Lytle Hernández, who is also a professor of African-American studies.

Los Angeles operates the largest jail system in the country and the United States has the highest incarceration-to-population rate in the world. Lytle Hernández most recent book “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965” illuminates the racially tinged roots of the history of Los Angeles’ massive system of incarceration. 

As the director of the Bunche Center, Lytle Hernández plans to team with the Los Angeles Black Worker Center as well as several community partners that are working to transform the U.S. criminal justice system such as Dignity and Power Now and the Youth Justice Coalition.

“Together, we will build upon the Bunche Center’s rich history of developing and deploying Black Studies as a field of study that transforms the world in which we live,” she said.

Million Dollar Hoods recently received a grant from the California Endowment to continue documenting and analyzing arrest data and spending. Million Dollar Hoods and Bunche researchers will collaborate with local grassroots organizations to generate reports that will support ongoing reform efforts.

For example, a recently released report from Million Dollar Hoods data shows that LAPD arrests of houseless people are increasing at a rate faster than the growth of the overall houseless population.

The term “houseless” combines arrests of people police have identified as “transient” with arrests of people who listed their home address at one of the 31 shelters listed by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

According to Million Dollar Hoods data, the number of houseless persons in the city of Los Angeles increased 21 percent between 2011 and 2016. In those same years, LAPD arrests of houseless persons increased 37 percent.

And, while total number of LAPD arrests has declined since 2011, arrests of those who are houseless as a percentage of total LAPD arrests nearly doubled from 7 percent to 12 percent between 2011 and 2016.

The mapping project serves as a community tool. Million Dollar Hoods researchers recently partnered with the Youth Justice Coalition, to provide “rebel mapping” workshops teaching its members how to query and map big data.

“Our objective was to provide young people living in some of L.A.’s most intensely policed and incarcerated communities with another tool to analyze and document the conditions of their lives,” Lytle Hernández said.

UCLA scholars across campus are working on justice reform

There is a growing concentration of UCLA faculty, students and alumni who are actively working to raise awareness and affect reform around the state and nation’s criminal justice systems. They are building momentum toward eventually creating a Center for Justice on campus.

UCLA’s student-run Justice Work Group, which held its inaugural conference “Beyond the Bars L.A.: The End of Mass Incarceration” October 13-15 at UCLA, was formed out of a desire to foster transformative discourse and collaboration around issues of justice and reforms to the legal system. 

UCLA graduate student Danielle Dupuy and co-founder of the Justice Work Group regularly teaches and works within the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles. Dupuy is pursuing a doctorate in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and is currently serving as the graduate student researcher for the Million Dollar Hoods project.

Artist, activist and professor in the UCLA African American Studies Department Bryonn Bain serves as mentor and adviser to the Justice Work Group. He currently teaches several UCLA courses from within the California Institute for Women, where UCLA students travel to the Chino facility to learn alongside the inmates.

UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and noted expert on how society and law are shaped by race and gender is behind the Say Her Name campaign, which is intended to serve as a resource for the media, organizers, researchers, policy makers, and other stakeholders to better understand and address Black women’s experiences of profiling and policing. Crenshaw is also credited with coining the term “intersectionality,” as a means to describe overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.

UCLA law school alum Frankie Guzman, who currently works at the National Center for Youth Law was instrumental in passing of Prop. 57, which took the decision of whether to charge juvenile offenders as adults out of the hands of district attorneys and granted that power to judges.

Underground Scholars at UCLA is a community group that provides support and mentorship for formerly incarcerated students. Underground Scholars is an initiative that began at UC Berkeley. In June, UCLA’s first graduating class of Underground Scholars received diplomas.