No easy fix for the jail system

Times Staff Writer

Charged with administering a jail system that shuffles repeat offenders through custody, fails to supply adequate medical care to many inmates and imposes burdens on courts and taxpayers, Los Angeles County leaders this week reverted to the strategies that have gotten them this far:

Supervisors defended their recent spending, blamed others for the jail troubles and suggested that the sheriff should manage jails better, while the sheriff said the problems are bigger than he can control.

In the end, said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the big fix for the county's jail woes may be in replacing Men's Central Jail, the antiquated and overflowing facility at the center of the system. But cost estimates top $1 billion, and the county does not have that money to spend, he said.

"The county cannot and will not do that on its own nickel," said Yaroslavsky, who chairs the five-member board.

In the meantime, the supervisors have dug deep to find money for additional beds and jail services. In the last 18 months alone, Yaroslavsky said, the county has spent $435 million, a sum that will pay for 7,790 additional beds. The supervisors also have approved a plan to add $10 million a year for four years to jail medical services.

"That's a huge investment," he said. "This is not a case where the board has been unaware of the problem. It is not a case where the board is being stingy.... This is not just a money problem. It's a management issue."

Sheriff Lee Baca disagrees. The disrepair in the county's jails, he said, is symptomatic of a larger, statewide retreat from leadership in public safety.

Today, Los Angeles County, which has the nation's largest jail system, spends about half as much per inmate as New York City, a figure Baca calls "troublesome to me." And efforts to improve communication between jailers and parole, probation and police officers are largely nonexistent, Baca said.

"California has pretty well bargained away its future in public safety," he added. "Management is not going to solve that problem."

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the board's longest-serving member, identifies illegal immigration as the central culprit, arguing that if the cost of incarcerating those inmates could be eliminated, the county would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Antonovich also criticizes the American Civil Liberties Union, which he calls the "American Criminal Liberties Union," for lobbying on behalf of reduced jail crowding.

"They never met a criminal they didn't like," Antonovich said last week, emphasizing that part of a solution to jail problems is waging a successful legal struggle against the ACLU.

Those comments, along with others from top county officials, reflect the degree of helplessness that many in power feel with regard to local jails, whose troubling problems were illustrated by a series of stories published this month in The Times.

As supervisors consider those issues, they see a money pit even as law enforcement officials ask for more. County leaders note that the problems of inmates don't move voters to approve money, and the state offers little in the way of a solution.

Meanwhile, conservatives fault civil libertarians and illegal immigrants; liberals bemoan a system that denies basic services, such as medical care, to inmates -- many of them not even convicted of crimes.

With all that, the county debates the issues year after year but never completely resolves them. And so the problems deepen.

None of this is new. In fact, the historical record is one of misguided staffing and construction policies, as well as missed opportunities to anticipate trends in crime and failures to adjust to more violent and dangerous inmates.

In recent years, the sheriff has responded to those cascading failures by letting most inmates out early, which churns thousands of prisoners through the system and erodes the deterrent effect of sentencing.

No one likes early release. And yet, even if it were possible to abolish that unpopular program, it would have consequences.

"Curtailing early releases exacerbates overcrowding and idleness," Merrick Bobb, who serves as special counsel to the board on the Sheriff's Department, wrote in a recent assessment of the jail system. "Overcrowding and idleness create unhappiness and provoke tension; unhappiness and tension provoke disturbances and riots; and the presence of high-risk inmates in dorms and cells alongside the more peaceful and vulnerable ones erodes safety and security...."

Baca himself acknowledges that past decisions have brought the county to where it is.

"We didn't use enough foresight," the sheriff said.

In the late 1950s, men and boys locked up in Los Angeles were being forced to sleep on jail floors. A series of grand juries demanded action by the county Board of Supervisors. One grand juror described the sight of more than 1,000 inmates sleeping on floors as a "disgrace to civilization."

What ensued would establish the pattern for jail construction and staffing in modern Los Angeles County.

The supervisors reluctantly acceded to calls for action. They asked voters to approve a bond that would pay for new jails but were themselves split over the plan and waged a lackluster campaign for it. Voters refused.

The supervisors then, again reluctantly, reshaped their existing budget and came up with the money to build Men's Central Jail near downtown. Construction was slated to begin in 1960 but did not as further squabbling over the plans pushed back the project a year.

At last, ground was broken June 29, 1961. At the ribbon cutting, Supervisor Ernest Debs, board chairman, said, "If this jail isn't completed by July 1963, brother, watch out. The Board of Supervisors is going to be awfully mad at you."

July 1963 came and went without the jail opening. If the supervisors seethed, they did so silently.

Three months later, the jail finally accepted its first 484 "guests." The building was not formally dedicated until early 1964.

But even as Los Angeles County solved one problem -- the need for more jail beds -- it shortchanged another, the demand for more guards to oversee those inmates. The opening of Men's Central Jail and the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in early 1964 helped the county house more than 2,000 additional prisoners, an increase of almost 30%. During the same period, staffing for the Sheriff's Department, which oversees the jails, grew from 4,479 total employees to 4,765, an increase of a little more than 6%.

By the early 1960s, Los Angeles County jails held a total of about 3,000 prisoners on an average day. Of those, about 800 were assigned to a facility then known as the Wayside Honor Rancho, now the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. The bulk were low-level offenders, easy to control and relatively nonviolent.

During the 1960-61 fiscal year, the jails logged 76,620 bookings, including 326 for murder and 14,000 others for other serious felonies, including rape, robbery, assault and major thefts. (Many inmates are booked for multiple offenses.) Most inmates behind county bars through the early 1960s were locked up for less-serious offenses: being drunk in public, committing fraud, violating vehicle laws or stealing small amounts of goods or money.

Today, that profile has changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable. On a typical day this summer, more than 5,500 men and women accused of violent offenses were behind bars in Los Angeles County -- 50% more than the entire jail population in the early 1960s. Of those, roughly 1,500 faced murder charges.

Arrests for serious offenses climbed steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, and as more serious felons were taken into custody, the effect on the jails was obvious.

Sheriff's Department adult arrests of 17,000 for serious felonies in 1979-80 became 19,000 by 1984-85 and 27,000 by 1989-90. During these years the county dithered with Men's Central Jail and debated building the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which was designed to replace Men's Central but so poorly planned that it opened without money for staff and thus sat empty for years. Other local agencies, most notably the Los Angeles Police Department, also were seeing their crime and arrest data soar in those years. And still the county debated.

"We didn't know how rapidly the inmate population would grow, but signs certainly were appearing," Baca conceded.

Antonovich echoed Baca's complaint that past boards did not pay enough to upgrade its jail system. "The problems of our jails are the result of broken borders and past under-funding of public safety," he said.

By the end of the 1990s, crime had declined, but tough sentencing laws put greater burdens on state prisons and new ones on local jails. Backed-up courts meant long delays while awaiting trials. During those months, serious felons, especially those unable to make bail, whiled away their time in county jail.

Year after year, the jail population became more dangerous as the limited cell space was turned over to violent offenders while less-violent inmates were held for a few days and released. Jails built for drunks became home to murderers.

One recent afternoon, Chief Marc Klugman, who oversees the Sheriff's Department's Correctional Services Division, sat in his office overlooking the county's main jail complex.

It was a hot day, and the jails were, as usual, bustling and grim as prisoners lined up for or shuttled back from court appearances.

The Sheriff's Department served 75,000 meals that day and held more than 1,000 inmates who had been sentenced to state prison but still were in county custody.

Looking out his window, Klugman acknowledged that decades of expansion and controversy had not solved the county's jail problems. Far from it.

"This is a concentrated form of what's in the community," he said of the county's inmate population. "We're the end result of a violent society."

Interviewed separately, Baca agreed and, with a sigh, expressed the resignation shared by so many when it comes to the county's jail problems. It can feel, he said, "like shoveling sand against the tide."

jim.newton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Jail system under pressure

L.A. County officials are debating the merits of improved management and additional funding to fix the overcrowding, inadequate health care and violence in the nation's largest jail system. Here is a look at arrests over time and some jail system highlights:

Annual adult arrests (in thousands)

1959-60: 47,904

1964-65: 27,221

1989-90: 98,218

2005: 94,818

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1961: Ground broken for Men's Central Jail

1963: Men's Central Jail opens, a few months before the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Monterey Park.

1988: $197.5 million anti- overcrowding bond measure fails.

1990: North County Correctional Center opens in Castaic.

1995: $373-million Twin Towers Correctional Facility opens, but lacks funding for full staff.

1997: Sybil Brand closes; inmates are moved to Twin Towers.

2006: After deadly brawls, women go to a reopened Lynwood jail to make room in Twin Towers for violent inmates.

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Note: Sheriff's annual statistics changed from fiscal- to calendar-year basis after 1990.

Sources: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Los Angeles Almanac, Times reporting

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