CLOSING THE MOST DANGEROUS JAIL: The First Pretrial Releases of LA Jail Inmates Could Possibly Happen Soon – by Matthew FleischerMay 14th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon
EDITOR’S NOTE: On any given day, the biggest chunk of the County’s jail population—45 percent— is made up of people waiting to go to trial.
Most of that pretrial 45 percent are in for felony charges. About half of those with a felony charge are accused of violent or sex related crimes.
But this leaves a big chunk of people who are in jail awaiting trial for far less serious charges. Many of this group are locked up, not because they are considered a public safety risk, or a flight risk, but because they simply don’t have the money or the assets (like a house) that will allow them to make bail.
Both Dr. James Austin and the Vera Institute compiled reports for LA County that recommended implementing an innovative system pretrial supervision, which would mean that certain people could get out, pretrial, without having to post bail, but they will have some element of supervision to insure that they show up for their court dates.
Matt Fleischer is keeping a close eye on the issue and has an update.
DR. JAMES AUSTIN SAYS THAT MAKING PRETRIAL RELEASE A REALITY IN LOS ANGELES IS NOT A SURE THING—BUT THE CHANCES LOOK GOOD
by Matthew Fleischer
It’s been nearly a month since LA County Sheriff Lee Baca stood side-by-side at a press conference with nationally-renown corrections expert Dr. James Austin to debut Austin’s plan to shutter Men’s Central Jail and reduce the LA County Jail population by up to 3,000 inmates. Austin worked with the Sheriff’s department for three months to develop his plan. (
The Austin plan, if you’ll remember, calls for the release of selected non-violent inmates awaiting trial, the transfer of inmates to lower-cost fire camps, expanded release opportunities through the sheriff’s Education Based Incarceration program, and the expansion of capacity at the North County Correctional Facility. The pretrial release component is generally considered the report’s centerpiece, and also the element that could be the most controversial.
Baca seemed impressed—publicly professing his support for the plan, and announcing for the first time that, thanks to Austin’s efforts, the complete shutting of MCJ could be accomplished without building a $1.4 billion new jail.
As I wrote in the wake of the press conference, however, Baca’s supportive statements were no guarantee of action. “The sheriff is not committed to implementing the Austin plan,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore told WitnessLA.
Even if the Sheriff does wish to implement the plan, he still has to convince the Board of Supervisors, the CEO, the probation department and the local judiciary of its potential efficacy. The prospect of closing the most dangerous jail in America certainly seems daunting.
I reached Austin by phone last Friday to see how things are progressing.
What is your role now that the plan has been completed? Are you sticking around to help implementation?
I’m funded to work with the Sheriff to help implement that plan. We’re starting that process. I just had a meeting with the CEO and the Board of Supervisors. We’re putting together the nuts and bolts.
How are things progressing in your estimation?
I’m still optimistic. By June 1st we’ll know how real this thing is going forward. We’ve got some players outside the Sheriff’s department, obviously–the CEO and the supervisors. Everything has to be negotiated. We have a ways to go.
Can the Sheriff enact any elements of your plan unilaterally? Does the money already exist for electronic monitoring of inmates released pretrial?
As far as the money situation, I’m not sure. Legally you can do it. But it’s best we get everyone involved. During the planning process I met with the overseeing judge, who was fully behind the plan. Funding is an issue, perhaps. But Baca can do it legally. He has those powers under the Rutherford case.
What is the first step we should be seeing the department take that would indicate they are taking this report seriously?
The releasing some of the pretrial people. The second thing would be to get the construction plans in place for shutting down parts of Men’s Central Jail and getting it reconfigured for lower risk inmates.
Have any pretrial inmates in the county system been released yet?
No inmates have been released. At least not that I know of. Things could have happened and I wasn’t informed of. But not to my knowledge anyway. We should see something in terms of releases soon though.