L.A. County’s broken jails: What’s the fix?


Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to apply for a $100-million state grant to help build a new jail. That’s great. The cash-strapped county certainly needs the money. And the overcrowded jails are surely in need of an overhaul.

Men’s Central Jail, for example, is bursting with inmates. The aging facility has been described by the American Civil Liberties Union as a “modern-day medieval dungeon” and by a federal judge as “not consistent with basic human values.” Twin Towers, a downtown Los Angeles facility built in 1996 to ease overcrowding, has, by contrast, nearly 1,000 empty bunks because of staffing shortages. And the north facility at Pitchess Detention Center that once housed 1,600 detainees now holds just two inmates — another casualty of budget cuts.

Whether the state will provide the funds is unclear. What is obvious, however, is that no one at the county level — not Sheriff Lee Baca, not Chief Executive William T Fujioka, not even the supervisors — has a sensible plan in hand for how to solve the system’s broader problems.


Fujioka’s office submitted a $1.4-billion plan in November to build two new jails and retrofit a third; it was ultimately voted down by the board. In making the recommendation, neither Fujioka nor Baca undertook any kind of comprehensive study to determine whether everyone in the jails actually belongs there, or whether cheaper and more effective options exist, including alternatives to incarceration for low-level pretrial inmates. The plan would simply have taken the same number of detainees and housed some of them in new facilities.

But bigger and more expensive jails aren’t the only solution. A 2011 study of Los Angeles County jails by the Vera Institute of Justice makes that clear. The report suggests that a significant number of detainees are being held in county jails for failing to pay traffic fines or court fees. It costs up to $140 a day to house an inmate, according to the report — hardly a cost-effective sanction for such minor offenders. The report also found that some pretrial detainees are held far longer than needed not because they pose a safety risk to communities but because they are simply too poor to make bond. The sheriff has discretion to release them with ankle bracelets.

No one disputes that the county’s jails are broken. But asking taxpayers to spend $1.4 billion without having a clear and comprehensive understanding of what is needed to solve the problem is irresponsible.