Backward thinking, planning on L.A. County jails


Los Angeles County officials are scheduled to make their pitch Wednesday afternoon for $80 million in state bond funds to construct a new women’s jail. It wouldn’t be just any jail, but a “reentry facility” specifically designed to prepare female offenders to return to their communities, with ample space for therapy, substance-abuse programs, mental health treatment and education. It is, in concept, the right approach for inmates who will shortly be regaining their freedom and seeking to lead responsible and productive lives.

But as is so often the case with jail planning in Los Angeles, the county has missed the bigger picture. The need for the new facility arises in part from overcrowding at other jails. County leaders argue that much of the crowding is due to their new obligation to house lower-level felons formerly imprisoned by the state, and that’s true as far as it goes; but the same “realignment” law that shifted criminal justice responsibility to local authorities also encouraged the counties to divert offenders who could be handled more efficiently and successfully outside of jails.

Other counties do it properly. In Riverside, for example, more than two-thirds of convicted felons (not including violent, serious or sexual offenders, who still go to state prison) are sentenced to serve only a portion of their time behind bars and the rest in the community, under the supervision of probation officers who monitor their participation in reentry programs. That frees up jail space and, more to the point, gears the entire system toward ensuring the inmates’ successful return to freedom. That return is inevitable, but whether offenders are able to stay out of trouble once they’re released is largely dependent on the county being prepared with community supervision and programming.


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In Los Angeles County, by contrast, less than 6% of eligible felons have their sentences spit between jail and supervision; yet to keep those offenders locked up for their full terms, the jails must instead release other felons early — with none of the community supervision that better protects the public and makes inmate reentry more successful. Now it is seeking money for new construction on the specious argument that it needs more jail beds to make reentry work. That’s backward thinking and planning.

This county also needlessly jails hundreds of nonviolent but poor suspects awaiting trial while releasing more dangerous people merely because they can afford bail. Other counties have freed up jail space — obviating the need for expensive new construction — with pretrial release programs.

Before awarding jail bond funding, the state is supposed to make sure that the county has made good use of available alternatives to detention. By that standard, Los Angeles County has undermined its own case, and it will have some explaining to do to a board made up mostly of criminal justice leaders from other counties around the state.