Editorial: A smaller, better L.A. County jail?

Inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in June.

Inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in June.

(Los Angeles Times)

A majority of the Board of Supervisors wants a smaller jail. Numerous reform advocates and thinkers want a smaller jail. The Times wants a smaller jail — because for too many years the county has squandered one opportunity after another to provide more humane and effective treatment to accused and convicted mentally ill, addicted and impoverished inmates, and has passed up the chance to invest in programs to reduce the likelihood that jail inmates would, after their release, commit more crimes. As many other counties and much of the nation have moved toward smarter justice, Los Angeles County has remained focused on an outdated jail-first approach to crime.

A smaller jail would be not merely an emblem of a change in direction but a serious inducement to the Sheriff’s Department and other county officials to view incarceration as a last resort, and to put substantial resources into diversion, treatment and reentry programs.

So the board’s Aug. 11 vote for a smaller jail would have been encouraging — but for two things.

First, the vote violated the law because it was not properly calendared and it left the public without prior notice that their elected supervisors would be taking such a consequential action. That violation is due to be cured Tuesday, when the board votes again.


And second, those supervisors who believe in diversion rather than jail commissioned a study by a consultant that would show — they, advocates and this page believed — that an aggressive diversion program would drastically reduce the need for jail beds. Yet when Health Management Associates reported to the board this month, its recommendation was for a jail with close to the same number of beds as the existing facility that needs to be replaced — close to the same number recommended several years ago by a jail construction firm and even more than a recommendation earlier this year from the Sheriff’s Department.

We hold firm to the conviction that the county must rely more on alternatives, and less on incarceration, than it has, and that less capacious jails create a healthy incentive to invest more in the community-based treatment and reentry services that are so desperately needed. We also hold firm, though, to the conviction that public safety planning and public spending must be based on facts and expertise, not wishful thinking or ideology.

As the board prepares for its do-over, then, we’re looking for something more substantive than a quick-and-dirty repeat of the supervisors’ previous discussion and vote.

Supervisors who support a smaller replacement for the Men’s Central Jail, configured to provide humane and first-rate treatment to mentally ill inmates who are too dangerous for community treatment, should lay out whatever deficiencies in the study led them to reject the consultant’s recommendations. Some disappointed advocates have argued that the consultant didn’t consider the aggressive diversion program offered by Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and adopted in part by the board at the same Aug. 11 meeting, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Any supervisor who might want to delay the decision further should explain why it makes sense to keep inmates in the outdated and inhumane the Men’s Central Jail, or the similarly decrepit women’s jail — the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood — any longer than absolutely necessary. The men’s jail, because of its outdated design and deteriorating conditions, contributes to tension between inmates and sheriff’s deputies, which in the past likely led to suicides, injuries and abuse of visitors as well as inmates. The women’s jail is plagued by plumbing and other problems that require periodic building evacuations.

The supervisors should explain as well why they have not reduced the need for jail bed space even further by authorizing the sheriff — as state law permits — to release people who have not been convicted of any crime but are being held, pending trial, merely because they cannot afford bail. Pretrial detainees make up the largest segment of the county’s jail inmates, and although many are accused of violent crimes and are potentially too dangerous to be released, many others should be out.

If they again adopt a plan to move forward with a replacement women’s jail in Lancaster, on the site of the former immigration detention center known as Mira Loma, the supervisors should also include plans for daily transportation to and from that far corner of the county for the inmates’ lawyers, counselors and family members. It’s not an incidental issue; numerous studies report that inmates with regular family contact are more likely to live safe and responsible lives after their release than others. Backers of a proposal to house Los Angeles County inmates in Adelanto wisely include daily transportation in their plan because they recognize that distance from Los Angeles’ largest population centers is one of their weak points. It’s a weakness in the Mira Loma plan as well.

The supervisors should also explain why they are not considering a partnership with private firms that would be on the hook for upkeep and repair through the life of the facilities. They should explain what their timeline is for a master plan that includes all county infrastructure projects — treatment and urgent-care centers as well as jails. And they should explain whether they will retain the ability to adjust the size later in the process while moving forward right away on funding, promoting and rolling out diversion programs.

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