A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
In a deal meant to relieve Los Angeles County's strained jails, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to send hundreds of inmates to a facility near Bakersfield.
Under the agreement, the Taft Community Correctional Facility, operated by the City of Taft, will house 512 L.A. inmates for about $61 per day each, which is less than the county spends on inmates in county jails. The five-year contract is expected to cost the county up to $75 million.
Supervisors have been debating the agreement for over a year, and even as the contract passed, two supervisors, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky, said they were not ready to approve the deal and abstained from voting.
"We're putting the cart before the horse," said Ridley-Thomas. He said supervisors should complete the process, and have an overall long-term plan for L.A.'s jail population before shipping inmates out of the county.
Over the past year, the board has devoted considerable resources to studying the county's jail population and strategizing — hiring consultants, commissioning reports and taking the first steps to plan new jail construction.
However, attention in recent weeks has shifted to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's decade-old policy of releasing jail inmates early to prevent overcrowding. According to recent department figures, even inmates with serious offenses like carjacking and child abuse are often let out of jail after serving 40 percent of their time. (Those serving time for lesser offenses generally serve 10-20 percent of their sentences.)
Chief Eric Parra of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department told the board Tuesday that the more serious offenders (called "M7s" in department lingo) would "begin to see an impact" on their sentences in December.
The county CEO's office predicts the contract will also save L.A. money. While Taft CCF charges about $61 per inmate per day, the county spends about $113 per day per inmate on county jail inmates. The exact savings will depend on the medical needs of inmates sent to Taft.
Critics of the deal, however, said the county failed t0 weigh alternatives before committing to a multimillion-dollar deal that puts inmates 120 miles away from Los Angeles.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, pointed to a 2011 report by the Vera Institute of Justice that recommended alternatives to incarceration, like electronic monitoring of nonviolent pretrial inmates who can't afford bail. The report found that "by making even small changes to the length of time these defendants spend in custody, more than 250,000 jail bed-days could be saved every year, equivalent to approximately 700 beds."
Eliasberg said that although other counties like San Diego and Riverside have done so, the board has never considered giving the sheriff the authority to release pretrial inmates to electronic monitoring.
"You could get 700 beds with one stroke of the pen, one motion of this board," Eliasberg said. "And yet you've debated Taft about four different times."
County CEO William Fujioka, however, said the Taft beds are "critically needed" — and in the context of the largest jail system in the country, a small piece of the puzzle.
"The alternatives are something we still need to look at," Fujioka said. "But these are 500 beds. We still have 18,000 individuals in our jails. And as we move forward, that issue [of releasing defendants who can't make bail] will be further discussed."
Fujioka said the county was also working under a time crunch, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is rumored to be interested in Taft's contract beds to relieve its own overcrowding issues. The first busload of inmates is expected to head to Taft in about two months.