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County consultant lays out options for jail overhaul

A consultant hired by Los Angeles County to develop a longterm plan for the county's aging jail facilities laid out options for a roughly $2-billion proposed overhaul of the jail system in a report released Wednesday.

The county supervisors, concerned about deteriorating facilities and poor living conditions for inmates with mental health issues, want to tear down the aging Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and replace it. The new facility would be primarily focused on housing inmates with physical and mental health needs and substance abuse issues.

Officials are also contemplating creating a new 1,600-bed women’s jail at the now-vacant Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, to replace the overcrowded women’s jail in Lynwood.

Full coverage: Jails under scrutiny

The plan is not expected to increase the county's total number of available jail beds, but officials said it would help the county comply with federal mandates on the treatment of mentally ill inmates, and would allow women -- who are typically lower risk than male inmates -- to be housed in a less restrictive environment with more options for job training and other programs.

The report by Vanir Construction Management laid out five options, all of which involve replacing the Men’s Central Jail. The new facility would hold between 4,860 and 5,860 inmates, depending on the option chosen, with the bulk of the beds set aside for inmates needing medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and a smaller number of beds for high-security inmates. Four of the five options also include a new women’s jail.

The construction is projected to cost between $1.74 billion and $2.32 billion over the next 10 years, and after that would add $162 million to $300 million a year to the county’s jail operating costs.

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees the jail system, argued that in the long run, the plan will save the county money because it will create better treatment programs for inmates and reduce their risk of reoffending.

“Certainly there’s sticker shock associated with this, but there has to be a recognition that we’re making a front-end investment to reduce recidivism and victimization,” she said.

Activists have called on the county to put more money into diversion programs instead of jail facilities, and said mentally ill people should not be jailed at all.

"It's humanly incorrect, it's devastating," said Mary Sutton, an activist with the Los Angeles No More Jails Coalition, at a meeting Wednesday where Vanir representatives discussed the report. "Locking people up with mental health issues -- other places don't do that."

County officials have been talking about modernizing the jails for years, but the issue took on added urgency in the face of federal intervention in state prisons and an investigation into the treatment of inmates in the county jails.

Vanir gave an initial presentation on jail options in July. County officials asked for more information about ongoing operating costs of the new facilities.

The county Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the report May 6 and may decide then which option, if any, to move forward with.

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abby.sewell@latimes.com
Twitter: @sewella

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