Crime & Justice

LA County awarded $150,000 grant to reduce jail population

Inmates at Chino State Prison walk past their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in this December 10, 2010 file photo taken in Chino, California. State and local authorities have since been recognized for their efforts to reduce their jail and prison populations, but officials say L.A. County still has more inmates than it should. A grant announced on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, by the MacArthur Foundation puts the county in the running for further financial assistance in alleviating its overcrowded jails.
Inmates at Chino State Prison walk past their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in this December 10, 2010 file photo taken in Chino, California. State and local authorities have since been recognized for their efforts to reduce their jail and prison populations, but officials say L.A. County still has more inmates than it should. A grant announced on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, by the MacArthur Foundation puts the county in the running for further financial assistance in alleviating its overcrowded jails.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Los Angeles County will be among 20 jurisdictions to receive a $150,000 grant and expert counsel to help overhaul its criminal justice system and reduce its jail population.

The awards, announced Tuesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $75 million initiative to reduce over-incarceration through innovation and reform.

In describing the aim of its program, the foundation cited recent research from the Vera Institute of Justice that found nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent offenses. It also found that low-income individuals and communities of color are affected disproportionately.

"Each of the sites selected has demonstrated the motivation, collaboration, and commitment needed to make real change in their local justice systems. The aim is that local efforts will model effective and safe alternatives to the incarceration status quo for the rest of the country," said Julia Stasch, the foundation's president, in a written statement.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department partnered with a number of local agencies, pooling data and resources, to apply for the grant, according to Sheriff's Commander Jody Sharp. Those partners include the District Attorney's office, LAPD's jails division, the county probation department and others.

The award is a planning grant and the first stage in a competition for even more funding. The county survived the first cut from an initial group of nearly 200 applicants in 45 states and territories, according to the foundation.

Early next year, 10 of the 20 jurisdictions receiving grants will be selected to receive $500,000 to $2 million a year to implement their plans.

The foundation said the competing agencies will receive technical assistance and counsel from leading criminal justice organizations. The L.A. County partners will be working with the research group Center for Court Innovation, Sharp told KPCC.

Sharp said the sheriff's department wants to lower its jail population by at least a thousand inmates.

L.A. County jails currently house about 16,000 people — about 3,000 more than what the Board of State Community Corrections advises, she said.

"A thousand beds when you're talking 16,000 doesn't sound like much, but it really will go a long way. It's so expensive to keep our jails operating. We're approaching $1 billion a year just in operating expenses to run the jails," Sharp said.

Recidivism and homelessness are a big part of the problem, according to Sharp, who said 60 percent of inmates that leave L.A. jails return to jail.

"If we can find diversionary programs or community-based alternatives to custody, maybe help the mentally ill not have to come to jail while they await trial, if they're mentally incompetent to stand trial — anything we can do that can lower our population in the jails will only make — and of course we have to do this keeping safety in mind in the community — then that will go a long way," Sharp said.

Below is the full list of jurisdictions awarded by the MacArthur Foundation: