LA County hires consultants to research downsizing jail system

A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

Los Angeles County officials have signed a $329,500 agreement with a consulting firm to research whether it can downsize its jail construction plans. The contract with Lansing, Mich.-based Health Management Associates comes on the heels of a heated debate over the future of the country's largest jail system.

In June, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors publicly discussed a $2 billion plan to overhaul the jails. The plan had been narrowly approved the board when Zev Yaroslavsy and Gloria Molina were in office.

At the meeting, new supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis - along with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas -  questioned the need for the size of jail that was being floated to replace Men's Central Jail. The new facility would be designed to house inmates with substance abuse and mental health disorders.

"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," Kuehl said. "This is still a jail."

Kuehl, Solis and Ridley-Thomas voted to suspend jail construction plans and order staff to figure out how to scale back the jail population through community-based treatment and supervision. 

Officials with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, meanwhile, have argued conditions in L.A.'s historically overcrowded jails have become unlivable, particularly for inmates who suffer from mental health problems. They said community-based alternatives simply don't exist to treat and safely lock up the vast majority of the county's 19,000 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," Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told KPCC last month.

The Sheriff's department has argued that with 20 percent of the jail population requiring mental health treatment - and 60 to 80 percent suffering from addiction disorders - a jail devoted to treatment is the county's best option.

Supervisors Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich, who supported moving ahead with the $2 billion plan, worried the county could lose a $100 million grant from the state to revamp the shuttered Mira Loma jail if the board delays construction. 

But community advocates have consistently argued the county could instead choose to invest the money it will have to spend from its own coffers on rehabilitation. They've questioned the sheriff's department's assessment of who qualifies as a violent and dangerous inmate who needs to be locked up.

Health Management Associates has been brought on to, in effect, settle the debate by providing an independent assessment of the county's jail needs and community capacity to provide alternatives. 

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who has taken an interest in diverting mentally ill from the criminal justice system, has also been researching the same question.

Both reports have been tentatively scheduled to appear before the Board of Supervisors in August.

In the past, Health Management Associates has been hired by the Department of Health Services to help draft strategic plans and revamp how it provides services. It has also worked with Santa Barbara County's health department. 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently switched control of health and mental health services in the jails from the sheriff's department to the health department.