Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to halt a controversial plan to send county jail inmates to a facility in Kern County after a board member who had originally supported the contract changed her mind.
The supervisors voted last month to approve a $75-million, five-year plan to send about 500 county inmates serving lengthy sentences to the correctional facility run by the city of Taft. The plan was touted as a cost-effective way to free up local jail beds and increase time served by the most serious offenders.
Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the three who initially voted in favor of the contract, said last week that she had changed her mind after learning that there is ongoing litigation between Taft and the state's Department of Corrections.
The Taft facility housed state prison inmates until the corrections department terminated its lease in 2011. Taft sued last year, saying the state should reimburse the city for unemployment benefits paid to former employees after the facility closed. The city also sought to bar the state from exercising a contract clause that would have given it the right to lease the facility for $1 a year after 2017.
Molina said in an interview that she did not want the county to get dragged into the dispute and was concerned that the state might have sought to stop the county from leasing the beds or try to take the facility over in 2017. She said she felt the supervisors had been "misled and misinformed" by sheriff's officials and county attorneys that the contract was ready to go.
"I really wish that Taft would have come to us clear," she said. "We need to find some permanent solutions" to jail overcrowding that has caused many inmates to be released early.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Mark McCorkle said the department had not learned of the potential legal issues until after the board voted to approve the deal and Taft had signed the contract. At that point, he said Taft officials notified the Sheriff's Department that, in addition to the ongoing lawsuit, there had been correspondence between the city and state about Taft's plans to lease the beds to Los Angeles County. Sheriff's officials then notified the county's attorneys, he said.
Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to comment on how the dispute between Taft and the state could affect L.A. County, but said the department — which is facing a federal court order to further reduce prison crowding — is again looking at leasing space in the Taft facility.
The state agency "is interested in the beds and is looking forward to the opportunity to discuss this with Taft officials," she said in an email.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who — along with Supervisor Don Knabe — voted against halting the county's deal with Taft, said lawyers had found that the county was on "strong legal grounds" to lease the beds at least through 2017.
In the meantime, Antonovich said, it would help relieve overcrowding in the county's jails and increase time served by serious and violent offenders.
Antonovich blames the state for local jail crowding because a law passed two years ago shifted responsibility for thousands of lower-level felons from state prisons to county jails.
Advocates of alternatives to incarceration applauded the decision not to send inmates to Taft because the distance would have made it harder for their families to visit.
Diana Zuniga, an organizer with Californians United for a Responsible Government and LA No More Jails, said she hoped the money that had been slated for the Taft jail beds could instead go to alternatives to incarceration, like a pilot program the county launched earlier this year to house female inmates with substance abuse issues in community facilities instead of jail.