This L.A. Democrat is a ‘New Testament kind of guy’ — and one of California’s most powerful voices on criminal justice

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

LOS ANGELES – The man — tall and gaunt, slightly bedraggled, carrying a plastic grocery bag — nodded to Reggie Jones-Sawyer as he ambled down the sidewalk.

“Hey, Reverend,” he drawled.

In his crisp blue suit, with matching baby pink striped shirt, tie, and pocket square, Jones-Sawyer didn’t flinch.

“I get that a lot,” he said. “Anywhere I go in this community looking like this, people ask me what church I’m at.”

Jones-Sawyer is many things — a six-term Democratic state Assemblymember from Los Angeles, the founder of its reconfigured and ascendant progressive caucus, chairperson of the Assembly Public Safety Committee — but a minister is not one of them.

On this busy block of Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles, as he headed to a local nonprofit organization to present a recent state budget earmark, he was simply trying to explain his rehabilitation-centered approach to criminal justice.

After seven years leading the public safety committee, Jones-Sawyer has found himself under fire this session like never before, increasingly at odds with Republican opponents and even some of his own Democratic colleagues as he held off legislation to increase penalties amid rising anxieties about crime. Sustained public outcry over his handling of measures dealing with the fentanyl crisis and a child sex-trafficking bill unexpectedly thrust Jones-Sawyer into the spotlight and left him scrambling to respond.

The mistaken identity on a city street seemed to strike him with new insight. Some minutes later, after touring a healthy community market and presenting its director with an oversized check, Jones-Sawyer offered an unprompted Biblical analogy.

“I’m really a New Testament kind of guy — that God believed in forgiveness,” he said. “That’s what we balance with public safety.”

At right, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, on the floor at the Capitol on May 31, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for CalMatters

Reggie Jones-Sawyer never intended to be the criminal justice guy at the state Capitol.

He worked for decades in Los Angeles city government, including as a deputy to Republican Mayor Richard Riordan in the mid-1990s and later overseeing its sprawling properties. After an unsuccessful bid for city council and three terms as secretary of the California Democratic Party, Jones-Sawyer ran for the Assembly in 2012 on a platform of job creation and economic growth, including a plan to lease out vacant state-owned land.

“I wanted to go back to my roots,” he said during an interview at his district office in Exposition Park, steps away from the California Science Center and the Memorial Coliseum. “I was director of real estate. I wanted to do economics. I wanted to do general services.”

But then-Assembly Speaker John Pérez had other ideas, Jones-Sawyer said. If he wanted a leadership role in the Legislature, it would have to be as chairperson of the budget subcommittee on public safety — primarily, according to Jones-Sawyer, because he was from a safe Democratic district and could take difficult votes without significant political risk.

The opportunity taught Jones-Sawyer about the power of the purse in state government, as well as the ins and outs of a whole new issue. He pursued funding for body cameras for California Highway Patrol officers and for programs to keep former inmates from reoffending, as well as legislation to no longer require jail time for drug convictions, to make it a crime for police to tamper with video evidence, to ban people convicted of hate crimes from possessing guns, to eliminate cash bail, to raise the minimum age for police officers, to regulate bounty hunters and even to replace the term “at-risk youth” with “at-promise youth” in state law.

“The policies he’s pursuing, the general direction, are where we want to go as a society,” said Anthony Rendon, the former Assembly speaker who in 2016 appointed Jones-Sawyer chairperson of the public safety committee, the first stop for any bill dealing with the California Penal Code.

Jones-Sawyer, who is African American, has been strenuously conscious of not returning to an earlier tough-on-crime era, when the state’s prisons were so overcrowded — disproportionately with Black and Latino men — that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce the inmate population. In an interview, Rendon commended Jones-Sawyer for relying on data and successful ideas from other countries to guide his leadership on criminal justice and police accountability, while standing firm against pressure to revive failed policies of mass incarceration.

“We know we’re not safe, and I don’t think it’s because we haven’t thrown enough people in prison. We’ve tried that. It didn’t work,” Rendon said.

Jones-Sawyer said he follows the will of California voters, who passed a series of initiatives in the 2010s to reduce the prison population, including limiting the scope of the “three strikes” law that imposes life sentences on repeat offenders. He acknowledges, however, that some criminals should be behind bars. 

“I’m not naïve in believing that everybody is redeemable,” Jones-Sawyer said. “I’m not saying everybody’s bad. Also not saying everybody’s good. I’m saying everybody needs a chance.”

But his tendency to halt any bill that would lengthen sentences or create new crimes often frustrates Republican legislators and many law enforcement officials.

“I see us catering more to criminals than to victims,” said Assemblymember Juan Alanis, a Modesto Republican and retired sheriff’s sergeant who became vice chairperson of the public safety committee this year. “I don’t like when we look out in the audience and we see faces that say, ‘You failed us.’”

Despite his steadfast positions, Jones-Sawyer at least listens to the other side, Alanis said, finding some opportunities for collaboration. Alanis provided input on a proposed $5.2 billion bond to address the fentanyl crisis that Jones-Sawyer introduced last month.

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer on a site tour with Community Services Unlimited, Conscious Capital Investments and General Relief Opportunities for Work in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Though a committed member of his party’s liberal wing — he helped reestablish a legislative caucus in 2017 to push for a more progressive policy agenda and endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary — Jones-Sawyer frames his approach to criminal justice as a matter of pragmatism.

He refers to himself as a “practical progressive” and at one point compared his politics to a platypus, an unexpected ideological blend that can defy categorization. In recent years, he has backed several bills to crack down on brazen retail theft, a concession to protect Proposition 47, which voters approved in 2014 to reduce some drug and property crimes to misdemeanors.

“It’s trying to get people to understand that if we stop crime before it starts, the return on investment is huge,” Jones-Sawyer said.

He argues that it is more cost-effective for taxpayers to invest in rehabilitating inmates and other community programs to steer people away from criminality, rather than continually sending them to prison.

Yet there are also a lifetime of experiences that clearly weigh on Jones-Sawyer: He shared that he was molested as a child and that his father was physically abusive toward his mother. He recalled an uncle who was stabbed to death on his doorstep, another that died of a heroin overdose, and a cousin who was killed because she was gay. Starting as a student at the University of Southern California, where he studied public administration, he worked overnight at a mortuary for 10 years and saw the ravages of the crack epidemic up close.

“People say I don’t understand. I understand better than anybody else. That’s what influences me more than anything else,” Jones-Sawyer said. But he wants to broaden the focus on victims to include those who have been victimized by the criminal justice system.

“So a lot of times I’m fighting for people who don’t have a voice in this or they don’t have a bunch of advocates or unions or whatever behind them to speak on this,” he added. “It’s very important for me to speak for the downtrodden and for people who have no voice.”

Don Tamaki, a San Francisco attorney who worked with Jones-Sawyer for the past two years as a member of California’s reparations task force, said he saw first-hand how the experiences of his ancestors seemed to both burden and inspire Jones-Sawyer.

“He’s a blunt speaker. He’s not a wishy-washy kind of guy. He’ll speak his mind clearly,” Tamaki said. “But you need that in a democratic process. You need that back and forth to come to meaningful decisions and meaningful compromises.”

Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, an Irvine Democrat, speaks at a press conference to push harsher fentanyl sentences outside the state Capitol in Sacramento on April 20, 2023. Photo by Tran Nguyen, AP Photo

Jones-Sawyer’s steadfastness has occasionally landed him in hot water.

Two years ago, he refused to hear a measure by a Democratic colleague to end a legal distinction between spousal rape and other forms of sexual assault, citing fears that Black and Latino men could be targeted with false accusations during domestic disputes. After fierce objections from women’s groups, Jones-Sawyer reversed course and the bill passed.

The furor reached another level this legislative session, however, starting in the spring, when Jones-Sawyer shelved a series of bills to crack down on surging fentanyl deaths in California. He argued the measures would only serve to repopulate prisons without addressing the underlying issue of addiction.

Backed by law enforcement officials and family members of people who died from fentanyl overdoses, Republican legislators held rallies and maneuvered to bring the bills directly to the Assembly floor, earning support from moderate Democrats along the way. At a tense follow-up hearing to quash the rebellion, Jones-Sawyer advanced a few of the proposals, but still blocked the toughest sentencing enhancements.

In an interview, a frustrated Jones-Sawyer said he was trying to hold off the “hysteria” around fentanyl so that his committee could develop a more comprehensive approach. The bond he recently proposed would fund substance abuse treatment, harm reduction programs, overdose prevention supplies, research and educational campaigns in schools — strategies that he said experts advised are far more effective for reducing drug use than penalty increases.

“We want to just wait until somebody dies? Then we’re going to prosecute the person that killed them and then we’re going to hopefully send them to jail for a long time?” Jones-Sawyer said. “How about if we save them so no one dies? That part I don’t understand. We’re trying to save people here.”

Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a Los Angeles Democrat who has counted Jones-Sawyer as a friend and mentor since they were both party activists in the early 2000s, said he earned respect as a progressive leader because of his ability to take whatever hits come with unpopular decisions.

Not many would willingly endure, for example, the unsuccessful million-dollar campaign by prison guard and police unions to defeat Jones-Sawyer in the 2020 election, which featured a controversial ad where the prison guard union president put a bullseye over his face. McKinnor, herself, said she turned down an offer to succeed Jones-Sawyer as public safety chairperson because her father was concerned about the pushback she could receive from law enforcement.

“I love how he stuck to his gun, stuck to his values through all of this,” McKinnor said. “I don’t know if anyone could fill his shoes.”

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer on a site tour with community nonprofits in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

The culture wars fully arrived at the public safety committee this summer, after Jones-Sawyer and the other Democrats abstained on a bill to add trafficking a minor for sex to the list of “serious felonies” subject to the three-strikes law.

That effectively killed it for the year, though Jones-Sawyer granted the author an opportunity to bring the proposal back. The rejection of the measure, which had passed the Senate with bipartisan support, caused such an uproar that Gov. Gavin Newsom and new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas intervened. The following day, Jones-Sawyer advanced it out of committee.

As the incident entered the conservative media outrage machine, it also grew into something more, colliding with the QAnon conspiracy theory that contends many Democratic politicians are part of a Satanic cabal of child sex traffickers. Jones-Sawyer said his office received a barrage of racist phone calls and death threats, as did others on the committee.

“People were outraged. These are common-sense policies being blocked by this one committee,” said Sen. Shannon Grove, the Bakersfield Republican carrying the measure, who said she does not condone the death threats. She expressed frustration that Jones-Sawyer did not meet with her about the bill before the hearing and even dismissed her when she approached him on a Sacramento street to discuss it.

“The media exposure pulled back the curtain on this public safety committee,” she said. “Good policy on public safety has died in this committee, whether it’s from Republicans or Democrats.”

Jones-Sawyer called the fracas a matter of miscommunication. He said he was seeking amendments to ensure the policy could not be used to punish victims who were forced to help their traffickers and held the bill when he could not reach an agreement with Grove. He blamed “Republicans and MAGAs” for spinning that as an attempt to bury it entirely.

“The fact that we believe that child trafficking is a serious crime — many of us agree with that — did not bleed through,” Jones-Sawyer said. “And so that is a mistake on our part, our communication mistake on our part, that we did not make that very clear.”

Jones-Sawyer is unapologetic, however, about holding the bill to demand changes and said he still hopes it could be amended before it hits the governor’s desk.

When confronted with criticism, Jones-Sawyer said he draws inspiration from his uncle, Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine students who faced violent protestors as they integrated an all-white Arkansas high school in 1957 under the protection of the National Guard. A poster of the Little Rock Nine hangs in the conference room of his district office.

“He could have died any minute. He could have been lynched,” Jones-Sawyer said. His mother talked about cleaning blood, dirt and food out of her brother’s white shirt every night so Thomas could return to school the next day dignified and defiant, which Jones-Sawyer regarded as a testament to the strength of his bloodline. “So when I get attacked, I feel that,” he said.

Jones-Sawyer, himself, was born in Little Rock that same year, though he moved to Los Angeles as a child. He said his grandfather, a boisterous man, snuck out of Arkansas on an overnight train dressed as a woman to escape a threat from the local Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the family eventually followed.

Now back at USC completing a doctorate in public policy, Jones-Sawyer said he is thumbing his nose at the racists who tried to prevent Black Americans from pursuing an education.

“You couldn’t stop my uncle and you can’t stop me,” he said. “Not only did you not stop me, but I’m moving on and on and on.”

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

With the Legislature on its month-long summer recess until today, Jones-Sawyer worked from the district on a recent Tuesday. Under the watch of former presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, whose portraits hung on a wall of the conference room, he met with a documentary film producer interested in his successful push last year to limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court and with reparation activists planning their messaging to lawmakers.

“I got one more bite at the apple,” Jones-Sawyer told a group of leaders from local violence prevention groups who had previously received funding through a grant program he established in the state budget. The governor will start planning the next budget this fall, he warned, and it was important to get requests on his radar as soon as possible: “You get one more Christmas wish. So you got to make it good.”

Because of term limits, Jones-Sawyer has a little more than a year left at the Capitol, and he’s already plotting out the end game. He launched a campaign for Los Angeles City Council in February, though he still hopes to pass a proposal to redirect savings from prison closures toward youth programs.

Then there’s the matter of who will take over the Assembly Public Safety Committee. Jones-Sawyer wants a transition to happen as soon as possible, so he can focus on his city council race. He said he is working with Rivas and other progressive members to identify a successor. A spokesperson for Rivas declined to comment.

The challenge is finding someone who can take the pressure of what Jones-Sawyer calls “the most difficult committee” in Sacramento, while also staying committed to building a “just and equitable system” rather than repopulating prisons.

“That’s hard, because everybody looks at justice differently,” Jones-Sawyer said, as he navigated the afternoon traffic on his drive to the Vermont Avenue market. He had just visited a training center for green jobs that was expanding through a state grant

“There are a lot of people I think would be very good at it,” he said. “I’ve asked, some others have asked. Kind of the answer has been, ‘that would not be my first choice.’”

A health scare in December brought further perspective to his work. Following a kidney procedure shortly before Christmas, Jones-Sawyer said he went into cardiac arrest and briefly died.

In the time before he was revived — he was told it took about three minutes — Jones-Sawyer said he saw his kindergarten-age grandson graduating from college and other visions that he wanted to keep private, though he said some related what he went through this year on the public safety committee. The experience, he said, filled him with a sense of purpose and a desire to recommit to public service rather than riding into the sunset of retirement.

“The Christian in me says God wanted to talk to me for a few minutes,” Jones-Sawyer said. “I know I’m supposed to be here.”

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