On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved four noteworthy criminal justice motions, including an important plan to bring LA County’s jails and probation camps into full compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
After the 2003 passage of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), it took a commission almost ten years to nail down and approve a set of “zero-tolerance” standards to eliminate rape in state and federal prisons, jails, juvenile detention facilities, and in community corrections.
PREA’s standards, meant to prevent sexual assault behind bars, include banning cross-gender strip-searches, installing cameras, “thoroughly” investigating allegations of rape, and keeping juveniles separated physically, and by sight and sound, from adult inmates.
Once the US Department of Justice began enforcing the federal law, the idea was that if states did not pass an audit, or chose to forego it, they would forfeit 5% of their federal prison funding. More importantly, if an inmate if a sexually abused inmate brings a lawsuit against a state, non-compliance with PREA may be viewed as deliberate indifference.
And counties that are found to be out of compliance may also be precluded from receiving federal grants and contracts, face DOJ scrutiny, and experience increased liability costs.
Los Angeles County is still not fully compliant with PREA.
Last year, a KPCC story by Frank Stoltze addressed the issue of LA County’s non-compliance five years after the PREA standards were established. Approximately 3.5 percent of jail inmates are sexually assaulted by other inmates or guards, according to a federal survey, Stoltze said. That would mean that around 600 inmates in the care of the LASD face assault each year. While the department has been working toward completing its PREA goals, there is much work to be done. LASD Deputy Giancarlo Scotti’s arrest last September, on two counts of rape and oral copulation under the color of authority at Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, prompted an inquiry into the measures taken by the LASD to prevent rape behind bars, according to Stoltze.
This month, another former inmate filed a lawsuit against Scotti, whom she says forced her to engage in sexual acts repeatedly, and department officials, whom she says were aware of Scotti’s behavior, and placed him on probation, but allowed him to continue working in contact with the jail’s inmates.
In April, an independent review of Century Regional Detention Facility—one of the largest women’s jails in the country—does not adequately uphold the PREA standards.
On Tuesday, LA County’s leaders discussed their commitment to becoming PREA compliant.
“We have a real opportunity here to demonstrate leadership far beyond this county by coming together to make LA County a national model, a leader in creating the safest jails and youth facilities,” Kuehl said.
Tuesday’s motion, by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Janice Hahn, will establish PREA Compliance Units within both the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department. The teams will “put together detailed compliance plans for each department and to establish protocols to ensure that complaints of sexual assault are appropriately investigated,” according to the motion. These units will also be required to report back to the board on the feasibility of having the Office of Inspector General conduct PREA compliance audits of the county’s lockups.
The teams will be comprised of staff from the CEO’s Office, as well as the Sheriff’s and Probation Departments.
The motion also directs CEO Sachi Hamai to “give PREA the highest funding priority during the next budget phase.”
“If there’s anything we can conclude at this point,” said Civilian Oversight Commissioner Patti Giggins, “it’s that appropriate staffing and funding and this unique collaboration that has been outlined will make this PREA Compliance Unit a success. Rape should not be part of anybody’s sentence.”
LA County Still Collecting on Old Juvenile Justice Fees
In 2009, the LA County Probation Department stopped levying juvenile detention fees on families of incarcerated youth. The department stopped charging the fees that year, but still collects payments on debts that families acquired before 2009.
This year, on January 1, a new state law abolished juvenile justice fees moving forward. However, SB 190 does not ban counties from pursuing fees incurred before the law went into effect.
On Tuesday, the supes voted to study the feasibility of ending the collection of outstanding juvenile detention fees.
LA County families owe nearly $89 million in pre-2009 debts, according to the motion, co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn. However, the county only collects around $120,000 of debts owed each year, an amount which may not outweigh the “administrative burden” of collecting the cash.
“The Probation Department, stakeholders, and the impacted community all agree
that this is not consistent with best practices for serving our County’s youth and
their families, and the fiscal and administrative burdens to the County,” the motion states.
“I am confident we will find a way forward that best suits our families and youth in detention while setting up future generations for success rather than incarceration,” Solis said. “Collecting fees for our youth in juvenile detention undermines youth rehabilitation and public safety. It also unnecessarily increases the financial insecurity of vulnerable families.”
The motion directs Probation, County Counsel, the Auditor-Controller, and the CEO’s Office to report back to the board in 90 days with information regarding whether the county has the legal authority to stop accepting and collecting the years-overdue payments from families, and whether any administrative or fiscal issues would arise if the county stopped collecting the money. The board also wants the departments to bring back a blueprint for shutting down fee collection, including a plan for notifying families that they no longer need to pay their kids’ juvenile detention fee debts.
“We decided a long time ago that juvenile detention fees were unjust,” Hahn added, calling the motion to halt the debt collection “long-overdue.” The fees, Hahn added, “did little to keep kids from reoffending and they only added strain to already struggling families. There is no good reason to burden families with debts they have been unable to pay for nearly a decade.”
“Fair Chance Employment Policy” for Formerly Incarcerated
The supervisors also approved a new policy that will require contractors and subcontractors that work with the county to certify that they comply with fair chance hiring standards, in an effort to remove barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Tuesday’s policy decision follows a motion authored by Supervisor Solis and co-authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas last summer directing LA County departments to return to the board with recommendations for developing fair chance employment standards for companies that contract with the county. If a contractor or subcontractor discriminates against a person with a criminal history, the county has the authority to terminate the contract.
“The best way to protect public safety is to help people who want a second chance get a job. This is not only the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do as well,” said Supervisor Solis. “Our new policy is another important step in giving our vulnerable populations a fair chance at getting back on their feet. We hope that other municipalities throughout the County will follow and adopt similar policies to help these men and women get a fair chance.”
The final motion, by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, initiates the “next steps” toward implementing body-worn cameras within the LA County Sheriff’s Department.
“As one of the few large agencies that has yet to implement this technology, time is of the essence to resolve this issue,” the motion states. “Given the complexity of the issues surrounding the use of body-worn cameras, however, as well as the high cost, it requires a deliberative approach to deployment, as well as consideration of its long-term consequences and impact on the Department and lessons learned from other jurisdictions.”
Back in 2012, the LA County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence recommended that the department employ “lapel cameras as an investigative tool” to more closely examine the issue of excessive uses of force among law enforcement.
The county held off on moving forward with a camera policy after a November 2012 report from the sheriff’s department laid out the costs of implementation and “expressed concern about investing in such a rapidly changing technology.”
Nearly four years later, in July 2016, the supervisors directed Sheriff Jim McDonnell to return to the board with a plan for body camera implementation within 120 days. And in October 2016, CEO Sachi Hamai submitted a report that estimated that implementing the cameras would cost an estimated $84 million and require 302 additional staff.
“There are many potential benefits of body-worn cameras if used correctly, including recording all contact a deputy has with individuals in the field,” Ridley-Thomas says in his motion. “These recordings can provide evidence in criminal prosecutions, improve both citizen and officer conduct, assist with assessing complaints about deputy misconduct, and ultimately enhance law enforcement and community relations. However, the use of body-worn cameras is complex, and raises many policy, legal and practical concerns.”
With this in mind, the motion directs the CEO, Sheriff, County Counsel, and the LASD’s Civilian Oversight Commission to bring in a consultant to assess all of the county’s previous reports on body cam implementation. The consultant will collect community and stakeholder input, and then develop recommendations for body-worn camera policies, procedures, deployment, required staffing, and other impacts that the cameras will have on the department and on the public.