Crime & Justice

Jail expert's report: LA County should close downtown's Men's Central Jail, lock up fewer people

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Los Angeles County doesn’t need to lock up so many people, a nationally-renowned jail expert suggests in a new report. That report also calls for closing the violence-ridden Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A.

Jail expert James Austin has provided independent analysis of jails and prisons across the country. He examined L.A. lockups as their population soars.

“It’s going to get up to about 21,000 people, and it’s going to get there very quickly," Austin noted.

Since October, L.A. County's jail population has jumped by about 2,000 to 17,000 inmates as California transfers control of less serious criminals to local jails. The increase is driven by a federal order to reduce state prison overcrowding.

In his report, Austin made four key recommendations: release non-violent inmates awaiting trial and place them on electronic monitoring, transfer some inmates to lower-cost fire camps, renovate and expand existing facilities at the Sheriff's North County Correctional Facility and expand rehabilitation programs.

“I’ll guarantee you this, there will not be an increase in recidivism rates," Austin said. "In fact, this is a better way of managing these people. We will not see the crime rate go up because of these programs.”

Sheriff Lee Baca, whose jails are under FBI scrutiny, initially resisted providing Austin with the data he needed to produce his report. Baca eventually handed it over.

“We welcome suggestions such as those offered in this report," Baca said.

The sheriff also said he agreed with one key recommendation: “Yes, I think I could close a significant portion of the Central Jail.”

Previously, Baca has said he needs the county to build a brand new jail before he can abandon the old one — an aging and dangerous facility with many blind spots for deputy- and inmate-driven violence. That facility is the focus of the FBI probe.

The report was commissioned by Baca and the American Civil Liberties Union. Its release marked new cooperation between them. It was just a few months ago ACLU National Prison Project Director Margaret Winter blasted the sheriff for his "arrogant refusal" to address "the worst jail violence in the nation."

Tuesday, Winter praised Baca. “What we are seeing is the ability of the ACLU and the sheriff to sit down together and work together in an extraordinarily productive way.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich called the report "half-baked."

"While Men's Central Jail is old, shutting it down without a comparable replacement threatens public safety and makes a mockery of our criminal justice system," Antonovich said in a statement.

Corrections expert Austin defended his recommendations to release less serious criminals and people awaiting their trials.

“If they don’t happen, L.A. County taxpayers will be paying a lot of money to house in the neighborhood of 3,000 people a year that they don’t need to house in the jails."