JAMES AUSTIN PLAN…MEET THE VERA REPORT
by Matthew Fleischer
The mood outside of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was cheerful on Tuesday at a press conference announcing the debut of a report by nationally-renowned corrections expert Dr. James Austin. After Austin made his presentation, LA County Sheriff Lee Baca spoke about shuttering violence-plagued Men’s Central Jail by 2013–without demanding a new $1.4 billion super-jail to replace it. It was the first time Baca had ever agreed to close CJ in its entirety without the precondition of a new jail, and his announcement visibly pleased the ACLU members. Even some of the normally jaded TV journalists in attendance, seemed excited, as if something new was afoot.
For the variety of reasons we have reported on here at WitnessLA, CJ is arguably the most dangerous jail in America. Virtually everyone–the LASD, the ACLU, the LA County Board of Supervisors, the Office of Independent review, LASD civilian monitor Merrick Bobb, the LA Times and WitnessLA—agrees it needs to be shuttered. Austin’s plan has created a roadmap for that to happen. Among other recommendations, the plan 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. If enacted, these proposals would help free up enough space in the system to close CJ permanently.
Asked why he has suddenly come around to the idea of closing the whole of CJ, without demanding a wildly expensive new jail, Baca replied, “I didn’t have an Austin plan before.”
True. But he did have a Vera plan. In September of 2011, the Vera Institute released a report, sponsored by the Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors and the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, that included 30 recommendations for how to alleviate population pressure in the LA County Jail system. Many of those recommendations dealt with enacting a more efficient system of pretrial release and the blended release of non-violent offenders—just like the Austin plan.
How many of Vera’s recommendations were acted upon since the report’s release? Exactly zero. And when Dr. Austin brought up the Vera recommendations Tuesday’s press conference, he said he didn’t expect any of them to be implemented.
If Vera’s recommendations were ignored, what assurances are there that the department will take the Austin report any more seriously?
When I asked Austin that question, he said he believed that we wouldn’t see a repeat.
“This plan has four very pragmatic recommendations instead of 30. Vera didn’t apply risk assessments to their release proposals. We did. I have full confidence our proposals can work, even with the various political considerations.”
One of the primary “political considerations” at issue is the rest of LA County’s government and several of its agencies. The Sheriff’s Department is limited in what it can do without the cooperation of the LA County Board of Supervisors, the county probation department and the judiciary. In other words, to implement most of Austin’s blueprint requires buy-in by various other county entities. The only thing Baca does have the legal power to do is to free inmates as he chooses–which is not exactly politically palatable.
“That’s not something anyone wants to see happen,” says Austin.
Sheriff’s spokesman Mike Parker wouldn’t comment on what aspects of the plan—if any— could be implement by the LASD alone.
“The public wants us to work together,” he said “And right now we are working together. So now is not the time to focus on hypothetical scenarios.”
Sources close to the board of supervisors say the Austin plan is something the supes will consider, but not commit to without a lot of additional study. Supe Mike Antonovich won’t even go that far. “While Men’s Central Jail is old, shutting it down without a comparable replacement threatens public safety and makes a mockery of our criminal justice system,” Antonovich said in a statement.
If the supervisors seem hesitant, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, the Probation Department, and various members of the Los Angeles judiciary haven’t haven’t taken any kind of initiative on reform. Like the Sheriff’s Department, all had the option of embracing Vera’s recommendations and chose not to—if they read the report at all. ←–
I called Peggy McGarry, Director of the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections to ask her what, if anything, the sheriff could accomplish on his own without buy-in from everyone else. “There’s been a lot of focus on the sheriff and the conditions inside the jail But the reality is the Sheriff does not control the population inside the jail. It’s the rest of the [county] system. The jail is overcrowded because of the way the rest of the system behaves. Bails are determined by the judges. [Even if Baca institutes reforms, the rest of the county system] can bypass the Sheriff, which is what it’s consistently done.”
McGarry said she hadn’t yet read the Austin report, nor did she want to comment on why Vera’s findings were not put into place.
“No institute makes recommendations with the expectation they would sit on the shelf,” says McGarry. “We were hired by the county to give them advice. Not to implement our recommendations. Inaction is always a risk.”
Even so, the ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg was confident that this plan was not the second coming of the Vera study.
“When you tell everyone they need to cooperate, no one does,” he said. “When someone takes a leadership role, it’s easier to make things happen. Dr. Austin has created a path for the Sheriff to take a leadership role. And [Baca] has made it very clear that he is ready to make this plan happen.”
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore didn’t sound so sure. “The sheriff is not committed to implementing the Austin plan,” he told WitnessLA. “The ACLU should not oversell this.”