By Taylor Walker and Celeste Fremon.
IF THE LA SUPES WANT A SMALLER JAIL, THEY MUST AUTHORIZE PRETRIAL RELEASE, AND SHOW HOW THE NEW LOWER NUMBERS WILL WORK
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the LA County Board of Supervisors is slated to re-vote on a $2 billion jail building plan, after the original vote was found to be in violation of the state’s open meetings law. The Supes’ first attempt at a vote, on Aug. 11, approved construction of a 3,885-bed facility to replace the horrifically decrepit Men’s Central Jail, which has a 5,276-bed capacity. The jail replacement was attached to a large-scale plan to divert a significant percentage of the mentally ill who wind up in the county’s jails to community-based treatment. The Supes will have to re-approve this plan, as well. (Read more of the backstory: here.)
A new LA Times editorial urges the LA County Board of Supervisors not to just perform a “quick and dirty” duplicate of their previous vote, but to carefully consider all the moving parts. If three out of five of the Supes want a jail with fewer beds than are presently to be found in the existing Men’s Central Jail, they will have to increase alternatives to incarceration. They should, for example, begin by authorizing and encouraging the sheriff to implement a well-thought-out system of pretrial release, as state law permits.
The board of supervisors, advocates, and others (including WLA) had hoped that the projected implementation of a robust mental health diversion program would substantially reduce the number of beds needed in the new jail. (LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald recommended a 4,900-bed facility.) But, after considering Prop. 47, mental health diversion (to a limited degree)**, and other population-affecting factors, Health Management Associates—a group that was hired by the board to re-crunch the jail population numbers—unexpectedly recommended a 4,600 to 5,060-bed facility. In other words, HMA, the boards own consultant, came up with a number that was much larger than the 3885 the board approved on Aug. 11.
If the county chose not to fully implement the mental health diversion efforts, the projected number went even higher—to 6,773. HMA’s proposed capacity was not far from that of a controversial jail plan tabled by the Supes in July in order to explore the feasibility of a smaller jail.
We at WLA have also been pushing for a smaller jail, so we took note but when HMA came back with larger numbers than expected. Earlier this month, when we did our own tour of Twin Towers & MCJ, we started to better understand why Sheriff McDonnell, and Assistant Sheriff Terry McDonald, are pushing for a larger facility.
Yet it is also important to note** that, in certain crucial ways, HMA’s numbers are misleading. A coalition of advocates knowledgable about the issue of mental health diversion in LA—including the So Cal ACLU, Public Counsel, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a lot more—wrote a fact-laden letter to the board pointing out that HMA didn’t really look hard into how many mentally ill inmates now cycling in and out of LA’s jails could be safely and successfully served in community settings, even though they were asked to do so. Instead of the detailed analysis that HMA admitted was needed, they took only a general, low-ball swipe at the affect on LA’s jail population that a rigorous program of health diversion was likely to produce.
So the bottom line is this: in order for a lower-capacity jail to be realistic, there must be a fully articulated and practical commitment to shifting the balance further away from incarceration and toward community alternatives. And somebody needs to demonstrate with real math that HMA has it wrong, and that the new lower numbers will work, if the proper fiscal investments are made in community treatment, along with a serious pre-trial release program.
The Times’ editorial board has a lot more to say about the jail plan, which includes a women’s jail renovation at the remote Mira Loma Detention Facility. Here’s a clip:
We hold firm to the conviction that the county must rely more on alternatives, and less on incarceration, than it has, and that less capacious jails create a healthy incentive to invest more in the community-based treatment and reentry services that are so desperately needed. We also hold firm, though, to the conviction that public safety planning and public spending must be based on facts and expertise, not wishful thinking or ideology.
As the board prepares for its do-over, then, we’re looking for something more substantive than a quick-and-dirty repeat of the supervisors’ previous discussion and vote.
Supervisors who support a smaller replacement for the Men’s Central Jail, configured to provide humane and first-rate treatment to mentally ill inmates who are too dangerous for community treatment, should lay out whatever deficiencies in the study led them to reject the consultant’s recommendations. Some disappointed advocates have argued that the consultant didn’t consider the aggressive diversion program offered by Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and adopted in part by the board at the same Aug. 11 meeting, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Any supervisor who might want to delay the decision further should explain why it makes sense to keep inmates in the outdated and inhumane the Men’s Central Jail, or the similarly decrepit women’s jail — the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood — any longer than absolutely necessary. The men’s jail, because of its outdated design and deteriorating conditions, contributes to tension between inmates and sheriff’s deputies, which in the past likely led to suicides, injuries and abuse of visitors as well as inmates. The women’s jail is plagued by plumbing and other problems that require periodic building evacuations.
The supervisors should explain as well why they have not reduced the need for jail bed space even further by authorizing the sheriff — as state law permits — to release people who have not been convicted of any crime but are being held, pending trial, merely because they cannot afford bail. Pretrial detainees make up the largest segment of the county’s jail inmates, and although many are accused of violent crimes and are potentially too dangerous to be released, many others should be out.
If they again adopt a plan to move forward with a replacement women’s jail in Lancaster, on the site of the former immigration detention center known as Mira Loma, the supervisors should also include plans for daily transportation to and from that far corner of the county for the inmates’ lawyers, counselors and family members.
Read the rest.
**UPDATE, Monday, 10:30 pm: In our earlier version of this story, we wrote that HMA had taken into consideration the affect of mental health diversion on LA County’s future jail population. But, we have since noted that, although HMA wrote that “expansion of diversion programs certainly has the potential to reduce the number of mental health beds…over the longer term,” they admitted that, in order to estimate this impact, “a more detailed analysis… would be required.” HMA, however, didn’t include such an analysis in their report, and their numbers reflect that lack—-which is a problem. The text has been updated to reflect these important nuances.