The cost of the new jail that Los Angeles County supervisors approved earlier this year is generally pegged at a staggering $2 billion, but that's really just shorthand. The figure doesn't include the cost of demolishing the decrepit Men's Central Jail, which a new facility would replace, and it doesn't include the cost of a replacement parking structure, which is an essential component of the project.
Nor does it include the opportunity cost of accommodating thousands of mentally ill inmates who could be treated as patients in the community, at less expense to the county, instead of as convicts or pretrial detainees in jail. Figures from across the country give encouraging evidence that people treated and supervised outside of jail are less prone to commit new crimes and cycle back through the jail system.
A recent how-to guide for potential diversion of the mentally ill away from jail underscores other potential costs and savings not included in the construction budget. The federal government picks up much of the cost for treating people in the community, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law reminded county officials in their report, but not for the same people housed in jail.
Lest any county supervisors roll their eyes and say they already knew that, let's just say it was important to double-check. The supervisors were similarly on notice for more than a decade that the U.S. Department of Justice was monitoring the jails for inadequate treatment of mentally ill inmates and was filing regular reports on deficiencies. Yet board members claim to have been caught off guard last month by the department's warning that it was fed up with the county's sluggish pace of improvement and was seeking federal court oversight.
So it's important to point out that the costs of the new jail project are not limited to construction but are intertwined with the service that is provided and the policy decisions that are made. County supervisors should carefully read the ACLU-Bazelon plan for diversion of the mentally ill from jail, just as they should listen carefully later this month to Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's report on successful programs in Memphis, Tenn., Miami-Dade and other places where jail wings or whole jails have been closed, taxpayer money has been saved, crime has been reduced and, crucially, would-be inmates have received treatment in a community setting because decision-makers in those cities saw the wisdom of keeping mental patients away from jail.