Easing Jail Overcrowding

Los Angeles County’s Central Jail, located near Union Station, is larger than some state prisons. As many as 8,000 men, the majority awaiting hearings or sentencing, live in space built for 5,100.

The overcrowding, a problem for years, contributed to a recent disturbance between deputies and inmates--most of the inmates members of a violent street gang. The melee, which injured 37, has refocused attention on the county’s congested jails.

The population peaked at 18,000 recently, although the system was designed to hold about 11,000 inmates. A crunch like that makes it harder to separate inmates according to their offenses, proclivity for violence or escape, mental or physical illness, gang allegiance or vulnerability to attack--all traits crucial to their protection or to the safety of others.

A new jail is the obvious solution, but jails are expensive, are welcome in very few neighborhoods and typically take six years to plan and build. Fortunately, work is expected to start in September on a new 1,600-bed high-security jail in Wayside, near Castaic, and on a 500-bed women’s honor ranch in Lancaster. Completion is expected in 1986.


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has discussed more immediate remedies such as more judges, more night courts and fewer trial continuances. Because 70% of the inmates at the county jail await court action, some supervisors believe with Sheriff Sherman Block that speeding up the judicial process from arrest to sentencing would reduce the population. But the board lacks the authority to make the changes.

The board last year approved the spending of $22.4 million to relieve overcrowding by freeing space for 500 additional beds in the Hall of Justice and the Biscailuz Center. That was accomplished by transferring sheriff’s employees and the training academy out to a vacant high school in Whittier. More such creative planning is needed.

At the state level, AB 2545, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), would provide $150 million in bond measures for county jails and would expedite construction by eliminating certain requirements in counties with overcrowding at 20% above capacity. It merits approval--one of a number of actions needed to relieve the overcrowding at county jails throughout much of California.