Jail reforms, health funding among L.A. County budget plan priorities

L.A. County officials propose $27 billion budget, promise to continue jail, child welfare reforms

Los Angeles County officials plan to spend more than $100 million over the next year to reduce abuses in the county's crowded jails, improve treatment of mentally ill inmates and divert others with mental health issues from entering lockups.

On Monday, administrators released a proposed $26.9-billion budget to operate the nation's largest local government for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

As well as continuing jail reforms that have been driven in part by pressure from federal authorities, the proposed spending plan sets aside money for improvements in the county healthcare system driven by the Affordable Care Act and for ongoing reforms in the child welfare system.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who praised the spending proposal, noted that it is the first budget developed after a major shift in county leadership late last year.

Two of the county's five supervisors were elected last year, as were Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and county Assessor Jeffrey Prang. And longtime Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka retired, with a successor yet to be named.

The priorities outlined in the budget proposal are largely a continuation of measures that started under the old leadership. But Sachi Hamai, the interim chief executive, said that now that the county has fully emerged from the recession, more resources can go into needed improvements.

"This budget is not about recovery any longer, but it is more about reform in the county," she said.

The budget would allocate $75 million to continuing jail changes. The current year's budget included $36.5 million to implement recommendations by a commission that studied violence in the jail system, including staffing the inspector general's office and placing more supervisors and cameras in the facilities to monitor the conduct of inmates and jailers.

Hamai said that about $22 million of that money has been spent so far and that the remainder should be spent by the end of June, when the fiscal year comes to a close.

The recommended budget for next year also includes $45.3 million to make further changes in the jail mental health system, including measures to prevent inmate suicides. Those are likely to be required as a result of negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice.

And the budget would add another $10 million to the $20 million set aside by the supervisors last year to implement diversion programs for mentally ill defendants. A task force headed by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has been studying the issue for more than a year and is expected to release a report in June with detailed recommendations.

Sheriff McDonnell praised the proposals in a statement, saying that the money would allow his department "to ensure the compassionate treatment of inmates in the nation's largest jail system, while also continuing to develop smarter justice system approaches to those in our community suffering from mental illness."

The proposed budget would also add 351 positions to help the county meet state guidelines on nurse staffing. And it would allocate $66.9 million to add 542 new positions, including 276 children's social workers, in the Department of Children and Family Services, in a bid to bring caseloads down. Over the last two years, 436 new staffers have been approved for the department, including 206 children's social workers, of which 183 have been hired.

But there are still many unknown factors that could play into the final budget, including a proposed hike in the minimum wage paid to county workers and contractors.

The county supervisors recently commissioned a study of the economic effects of raising the minimum wage paid to county workers and contractors — as well as all people working at businesses in the county's unincorporated areas.

Hamai declined to comment on how much money the proposed budget includes for potential salary increases, citing ongoing negotiations with county employee unions.

The county could face other large expenses not included in the budget proposal if the supervisors decide to embark on large-scale infrastructure projects, including a proposed overhaul of the aging animal shelter system and a potential rebuilding of the deteriorating central Juvenile Hall.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more L.A. County news.

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