Politics

LA Supervisors vote to suspend jail overhaul

The Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
Christopher Okula/KPCC

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted to suspend a $2 billion overhaul of the county's jails. 

In May 2014, in a tight vote, the board gave the go-ahead for a controversial plan to tear down the crumbling Men's Central Jail and replace it with a 4,800-bed facility devoted to housing and treating inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems. The plan also included converting the shuttered Mira Loma jail into a facility for women.

Since that vote, two supervisors have retired, and two new ones, Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, joined the board. Until Tuesday, they had not weighed in on the plan, which would be the most expensive construction project the county has ever undertaken. 

Kuehl, Solis, and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who abstained from the original vote, voted Tuesday to put the brakes on the plan until an independent assessment can be made of how big the project actually needs to be--and whether there are rehabilitation programs outside of jail that could better serve a portion of L.A.'s jail population.

"Jail is the worst place to deliver these services," Kuehl said. "I ask for an independent assessment of how many persons would actually have to be treated in this facility."

Kuehl said there needs to be a solid assessment of what options are available in the community.

The discussion comes as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department was already looking to downscale the original proposal. 

The revised proposal, asked for 3,900 beds at an estimated cost of $1.8-2 billion--a slightly smaller jail with a similar price tag. The full project could be complete in 2021, the County's Chief Executive Office told the board. 

Kuehl said the revised plan didn't address her concerns.

"Nothing has shown me why 3,900 people must be in this correctional treatment facility and cannot receive treatment somewhere else or receive better treatment somewhere else," she said. "This is still a jail."

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, told the board she believes in diverting as many people as possible into community treatment programs. 

"That said, we're always going to need jail," she said. "We can reduce the footprint of the facility and turn it one hundred percent into treatment."

L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he worries the infrastructure doesn't exist in the community to accommodate all those who need treatment and rehabilitation. He also said jail will still be needed for a lot of inmates. 

 "They are violent, they've committed serious felonies in many cases, and we're going to be charged with continuing to house them, so we want to be able to do it in the most humane manner possible." 

While the aging Men's Central has crumbled, the county has simultaneously struggled to effectively house its mentally ill inmates, often attracting lawsuits and claims of horrid conditions. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened the county with a lawsuit, citing "dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowed" living conditions inside the jail. County leaders have indicated their close to a court-enforced settlement with the feds. 

About 20 percent of the jail population requires mental health treatment, and 60 to 80 percent suffer from addiction disorder.

"And we haven't even begun to talk about trauma and lack of education," McDonald said. "These folks who enter have needs and L.A. County needs a facility that's actually designed to help them with their needs so that we don't have this constant churning of people in and out of the jails."

Meanwhile, some of L.A.'s jails are running at 30 to 40 percent of their intended capacity. 

Under prison realignment, which shifted responsibility for lower level state prisoners to county sheriff's departments, L.A.'s jail population swelled to 19,000 inmates. Then Proposition 47, passed last year, converted many drug crimes to misdemeanors, and the population dropped. The sheriff's department used some of the space to lessen its use of early release, which used to put inmates back in the community after serving 10 to 20 percent of their sentences. Now L.A.'s inmates serve 90 percent of their time.

Diana Zuniga, an organizer with Californians United for a Responsible Budget, said Tuesday's vote was a step in the right direction.

"We hope that in this assessment of community-based resources, we can think about what is there and what we envision could be built instead of a jail," she said.

The board has yet to decide on an outside entity to conduct the review.

12:49 p.m.: LA supervisors discuss suspending $2 billion jail plan

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday is considering suspending a $2 billion plan to overhaul the county's jails. 

In May 2014, in a tight vote, the board gave the go-ahead for a controversial plan to tear down the crumbling Men's Central Jail and replace it with a 4,800-bed facility devoted to housing and treating inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems. The plan also included converting the shuttered Mira Loma jail into a facility for women.

Since that vote, two supervisors have retired, and two new ones, Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, joined the board. Until Tuesday, they had not weighed in on the plan, which would be the most expensive construction project the county has ever undertaken. 

Kuehl and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who abstained from the original vote, introduced a motion Tuesday to suspend the plan until an independent assessment can be made of how big the project actually needs to be--and whether there are rehabilitation programs outside of jail that could better serve a portion of L.A.'s jail population.

"Jail is the worst place to deliver these services," Kuehl said. "I ask for an independent assessment of how many persons would actually have to be treated in this facility."

Kuehl said there needs to be a solid assessment of what options are available in the community and wants the county's Chief Executive Office to complete the study within 45 days. 

"Nothing has shown me why 3,900 people must be in this correctional treatment facility and cannot receive treatment somewhere else or receive better treatment somewhere else," she said. "This is still a jail."

The discussion comes as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department was already looking to downscale the original proposal. 

The revised plan, which provides 3,900 beds at an estimated cost of $1.8-2 billion, is slightly smaller, though the price tag remains similar. The full project would be complete in 2021, the County's Chief Executive Office told the board. 

Appearing before the board Tuesday, Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, told the board she believes in diverting as many people as possible into community treatment programs. 

"That said, we're always going to need jail," she said. "We can reduce the footprint of the facility and turn it one hundred percent into treatment."

L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Department of Public Health Director Mitch Katz told the board that Men's Central needs to go.

"The current jail is not a good setting for treatment," Katz said.

While the aging Men's Central has crumbled, the county has simultaneously struggled to effectively house its mentally ill inmates, often attracting lawsuits and claims of horrid conditions. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened the county with a lawsuit, citing "dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowed" living conditions inside the jail. County leaders have indicated their close to a court-enforced settlement with the feds. 

About 20 percent of the jail population requires mental health treatment, and 60 to 80 percent suffer from addiction disorder.

"And we haven't even begun to talk about trauma and lack of education," McDonald told KPCC. "These folks who enter have needs and L.A. County needs a facility that's actually designed to help them with their needs so that we don't have this constant churning of people in and out of the jails."

Meanwhile, some of L.A.'s jails are running at 30 to 40 percent of their intended capacity. 

Under prison realignment, which shifted responsibility for lower level state prisoners to county sheriff's departments, L.A.'s jail population swelled to 19,000 inmates. Then Proposition 47, passed last year, converted many drug crimes to misdemeanors, and the population dropped. The sheriff's department used some of the space to lessen its use of early release, which used to put inmates back in the community after serving 10 to 20 percent of their sentences. Now L.A.'s inmates serve 90 percent of their time.

The board is expected to vote on whether to suspend the project later today.