‘No more jails,’ just mental health centers. Is that a realistic policy for L.A. County?
Almost everyone in a position of power in Los Angeles County wants to close the antiquated Men’s Central Jail, a dungeon-like structure that opened six decades ago and is ill-suited to meet the growing mental health needs of modern inmates.
But finding agreement about how, and what to do beyond that, has proved a costly and time-consuming endeavor.
Facing protests from jail-reform activists and a desire to reshape the county’s criminal justice system, the Board of Supervisors earlier this month scrapped a $1.7-billion contract to build a jail-like mental health treatment center partially in the footprint of the Men’s Central Jail.
Such a facility is one the Sheriff’s Department has said that it needs, to replace the aging jail and to reduce strain on its jail network — which collectively houses about 17,000 inmates, about a third of whom are receiving mental-health treatment.
The supervisors’ reversal — and the lack of a specific plan to replace it — has many stakeholders posing one big question: What now?
The answer could come later this year. The same day it canceled the contract, the Board of Supervisors asked the county’s chief executive officer to form a new strategy, working with departments that oversee health, criminal justice and infrastructure.
“We’re committed to moving forward with a deliberate and thoughtful plan, and one that takes into consideration the needs of those in our criminal justice system and our surrounding communities,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, the board’s chair.
Meanwhile, the Men’s Central Jail — built in 1963 — could remain in use for several more years until county departments handling criminal justice, infrastructure and health can cement the board’s ultimate vision.
The decision to scrap the contract was the latest change in a decade-long discussion over the evolution of criminal justice in Los Angeles — away from incarceration and toward treatment, rehabilitation and diversion.
Some call it a “paradigm shift.”
The new philosophy comes amid an era of changes in criminal justice policy statewide. The California Legislature has passed bills and voters have approved ballot measures, all designed to reduce the population behind bars and lessen the punishment for nonviolent crimes.
In recent years, the board has shifted significant funding and attention to improving the outcomes for people involved in the criminal justice system, launching, for example, the Office of Diversion and Reentry, which helps keep people with mental health and substance abuse disorders out of jail by moving them into community programs.
Despite those efforts, the county still has thousands of people in custody who realistically can’t be diverted to community programs or services, experts say, and many of them need mental health treatment while in jail.
That is one reason county officials decided years ago not to merely replace the Men’s Central Jail with a newer iteration of it. Rather, they spent years and many millions of dollars settling on a plan to create the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility, designed to house 3,885 “inmate patients” in a rehabilitation-focused center. That came about based on research showing that the county was likely to need more tools for mental health treatment within the jail system — even with efforts to divert people from it.
“Mental health diversion is not a jail reduction plan,” said a 2015 report commissioned by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “Although a successful mental health diversion program could result in some reduced need for jail beds in years to come, there will always be a need for mental health treatment to take place within the jail.”
The plan was to build the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility in phases, ultimately moving thousands of inmates with mental health needs there from the newer Twin Towers Correctional Facility nearby. By the end of the project, inmates from the Men’s Central Jail would have taken the place of those inmates from the Twin Towers facility, allowing county officials to raze the aging jail in the process.
But that changed in February, when a divided Board of Supervisors replaced the plan with one for a new Mental Health Treatment Center, which would focus more on rehabilitation and be staffed by the county’s Department of Mental Health with a limited number of deputies providing security.
In recent months, however, it became clear that the county’s contract with McCarthy Building Cos. to build the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility didn’t have the flexibility to evolve into what the supervisors now wanted. Instead of building one large facility, as the contract dictated, they had warmed to the idea of a network of smaller places to treat inmates.
Hence, the vote earlier this month. More than 100 people spoke at that supervisors’ meeting, urging the county to start over.
Joseph Charney, a former assistant district attorney and an aide to former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said the current supervisors seem “irresponsibly dismissive” of the years of research and thought that went into crafting the replacement plan.
“The clock is ticking on this jail,” he said. “What is going on is kicking the can down the road because nobody wants their imprimatur on a jail.”
The board’s lone dissenting vote, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, said she didn’t believe a “no more jails” policy would work for a county as large and complex as Los Angeles.
The current jails have more than 1,000 people in custody for homicide cases alone. About 40% of the current population is being held for a crime against another person, including robbery, assault and sex offenses, according to data released by the Sheriff’s Department.
“At the end of the day, if we really do believe no more jails, then why do we continue to recruit law enforcement to uphold the laws?” Barger asked before the vote.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the supervisors before the vote that his department needed a modern jail with ready access to mental health treatment. He ticked off statistics about the numbers of violent offenders who are behind bars and likely wouldn’t be approved for diversion under county programs.
“That is a direct threat to public safety,” he said.
Villanueva, who said the supervisors’ shifting philosophy on criminal justice is “healthy,” also questioned whether the paradigm shift had gone too far. Not building the replacement for the Men’s Central Jail would force his department to keep people who need services in antiquated facilities.
“The current facilities were not designed to provide in-custody mental health treatment, but have been repurposed to accommodate the growing mental health population,” he said.
Older facilities have become notably inefficient, unsafe and unhealthy, according to one of two studies the supervisors have funded to craft a jail policy.
The Men’s Central Jail, for example, has cavernous halls with inadequate natural light and recreational space. It also lacks enough rooms for clinicians to interview and treat inmates, among other problems.
“We would all love it if we had a society that didn’t need jails, but I don’t know where that is,” said Ron Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. “Really, I would hope that maybe they will rethink this.”
But the supervisors ultimately are siding with activists, who say the county needs a completely different approach to the mental health needs of people involved in the criminal justice system, and that should include more diversion from jail and more treatment centers and community programs.
“What we’re advocating for is decentralized, holistic mental health care throughout the county,” said Patrisse Cullors, founder and chairperson of Reform L.A. Jails and one of the chief critics of the county’s contract with McCarthy Building Cos. “We don’t actually need any more jail beds. We need to prioritize service beds.”
An example of that approach could be specific courts focused on jail diversion to medical care — but also assistance, upon successful completion of such a program, to secure housing, said Mark Gale, the criminal-justice chair of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in L.A.
Gale said he supports the county using more programs to help people avoid jail and receive treatment. But he also knows that many people will remain in custody, so he hopes for a “transparent dialogue” between county officials and mental-health experts about how to treat inmates now that the supervisors have backed away from a large, jail-like treatment facility.
The current space for mental health in the Men’s Central Jail isn’t adequate, he said, noting that there should be more hospital-like areas where doctors can ensure that inmates take their medications — a task that’s more difficult when they remain in their cells.
“Everybody is not getting out; that’s really, really clear.” Gale said of inmates. “They do need multi levels of care where they are.”
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