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L.A. County supervisors study replacing Men's Central Jail

Concerned that federal authorities could soon intervene in the operation of Los Angeles County's outdated jail system, the Board of Supervisors took a significant step Tuesday toward replacing the Men's Central Jail and renovating other facilities to reduce crowding and increase mental health services for prisoners.

The board voted unanimously to accept a report from consultants who outlined five jail renovation options.

All options included tearing down and replacing the cornerstone of the nation's largest jail system — the Men's Central Jail — and reconfiguring other existing facilities.

Supervisors were wary of the $1.3-billion to $1.6-billion price tag — if approved, it would be the county's largest building project ever. But they were more concerned about jail conditions prompting the federal government to wrest away control.

They repeatedly cited a similar dilemma facing state officials, who were ordered by federal judges earlier this year to release 9,600 prisoners or find another cure for overcrowding.

Supervisor Gloria Molina expressed concern that some of the county's jails now exceed crowding limits imposed on state prisons by federal courts.

"I think that that's a real threat and I think it would be a mistake not to think it's a real threat," she said during Tuesday's meeting. "While we are concerned about the cost here — which is a big cost — it is also a concern as to how much it is going to cost us if we were to get into a legal liability situation or find ourselves in a very similar situation to the state."

The county would borrow the money to pay for construction by issuing bonds to investors. And the interest cost would be paid from the existing general fund budget, so taxes would not increase as a result.

The consultant's options would leave capacity unchanged, but the designs would decrease crowding, while increasing access to care for the mentally ill, drug addicts and alcoholics. The proposals would also create safer facilities, with new sightlines that would allow guards to better monitor the inmates, said Rob Nash, an architect with Vanir Construction Management.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California criticized the proposals, and presented a separate analysis by consulting group JFA Institute.

The JFA report agreed that the Men's Central should be torn down and also agreed that there should be emphasis on better serving inmates with severe medical and mental health problems. But the report said that the number of beds being estimated by Vanir was "excessive" and that it should have looked at alternatives to incarceration.

Esther Lim of the ACLU faulted the board for hiring a company that specializes in building jails to perform its analysis.

"It was not surprising that a construction company in its report proposed five options, all involving construction of new buildings," she said.

The board voted to accept the consultants' report, and to revisit the matter in four weeks. In the meantime, county officials were directed to answer questions about existing operations and to amend the agreement with Vanir so the firm can begin analyzing staffing and operational costs for the various proposals. Officials will also find out whether the county can use a $100-million state grant now earmarked for a new women's facility at the Pitchess Detention Center to instead adapt existing facilities at Mira Loma to house female inmates.

County officials have been discussing modernizing the jails for years, but balked at a $1.4-billion proposal put forth in 2011 by Sheriff Lee Baca, whose department operates the jails. The issue has taken on a new urgency as local officials have watched the federal government intervene in state prisons.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky remained concerned about the price, and questioned whether jail officials could reduce the inmate population without affecting public safety. He noted that crime in the county has been at a record low despite the fact that lower-level offenders were routinely not serving full sentences because of crowding or a shift in prisoners from state to county custody.

"The cost is giving me some sticker shock," he said, adding later that all parties recognized that something had to be done about conditions in the county's jails. "This is a train wreck waiting to happen," he said.

Molina was repeatedly skeptical of Baca, and said that if the county moves forward in building the new facilities, she would like to see the sheriff stripped of his authority to release prisoners early.

Dozens of protesters objected to the construction of any jails, standing with their backs to the supervisors during the meeting and urging them to use the money to fund community-based treatment rather than new jail space.

"We are adamantly against any jailing of people who have mental health issues," said Patrisse Cullors, lead organizer with the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails.

Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas told the crowd that the county was spending money on community-based treatment, but had an obligation to fix its jails.

"Jails are clearly a necessity," he said. "The extent of what those jails are is another matter for debate. But there is a human rights component that cannot be ignored with respect to what jails look like and what services they are legally obliged to afford."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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