Less than a month ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $75 million to send 500 long-term inmates to a Kern County facility in an effort to ease jail overcrowding. Now, citing legal concerns, the board seems inclined to pull the plug on the plan.
Supervisor Gloria Molina withdrew her support because she was worried the county could be drawn into a messy ongoing lawsuit between the state and officials in Kern. Apparently, county lawyers failed to inform the board about the lawsuit before the supervisors voted on the contract.
Frankly, it's hard to imagine how they could have been left in the dark about such an important matter as they were preparing to approve a $75-million contract. But this is not the first time the board has been forced at the last minute to rethink its plans for fixing the county's sprawling jail system, which has been plagued by overcrowding, poor conditions and allegations that excessive force has been used against inmates. In May, for instance, the board hired a construction company to come up with a plan to replace the aging Men's Central Jail and renovate other facilities. The company unveiled the plan this summer, just weeks before the Department of Justice announced it was launching a civil rights probe into the treatment of mentally ill inmates, including where and how they are housed. The plan is now under review; the supervisors fear it could be in conflict with the forthcoming findings by the Justice Department.
And at least four other proposals submitted in the last five years by Sheriff Lee Baca or county Chief Executive William T Fujioka have been voted down by the supervisors; they complained that the plans lacked basic information. The board has continued to turn solely to Baca for guidance even as is has increasingly expressed a lack of confidence in his ability to manage the jails, much less fix them.
The truth is that the supervisors haven't been able to find a single plan they like, or come up with one on their own. And they may be running out of time. As Molina acknowledged this year, there is reason to believe that federal authorities may step in and sue the county or seek a consent decree to force it to alleviate overcrowding. After all, some of the jails, including a women's facility in Lynwood that is at 160% capacity, far exceed the crowding limits imposed by federal courts on state prisons. The supervisors say they are concerned they may soon find themselves facing a similar lawsuit.