LA County Board is Poised for Big Decisions on the Future of County Jails

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to vote Tuesday on a handful of items with the potential to influence the county jail system for decades to come, including potentially overturning plans to replace the Men's Central Jail with a $2.2 billion jail treatment center.

The five-member board decided last month to hold off on spending $215 million on a women's jail in Lancaster at the Mira Loma Detention Center.

Advocates had long argued that building a jail roughly 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles would put women -- many of whom would be awaiting trial rather than convicted of any crime -- too far from their families and other support networks.

Some board members said they wanted to see strategies for gender-responsive programming and family reunification before making a final decision on whether to re-purpose the former immigration detention center as a jail.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she would absolutely not vote to build on the Lancaster site, regardless of what other programs might be offered, citing "insurmountable obstacles." Four votes are needed to approve and award the construction contract.

The county could lose $100 million in state grant money if it backs away from the Lancaster site, but criminal justice activists said the board should go a step further and scuttle all its plans for new jails.

Dignity & Power Now, the Youth Justice Coalition and American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, among others, have said for years that billions in jail dollars should instead be spent on resources to keep people out of jail, including diverting more offenders to community-based mental health and substance abuse programs.


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The board has historically countered that the decrepit, outdated Men's Central Jail contributes to the county's inability to properly care for a growing number of mentally ill inmates and must be torn down to build a Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility.

The Los Angeles Times editorial desk recently joined in calling on the board to "say 'no' to the mental health jail -- and to instead create a road map for real mental healthcare of a scope and at a scale commensurate with the county's needs. The time for the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility has come and gone."

That argument seems to have gained traction with the board -- which was already working to expand alternatives to custody and invest in more residential mental health care.

Votes to award design-build contracts for both the Lancaster women's jail and the CCTF are slated for Tuesday. However, Kuehl and Supervisor Hilda Solis co-authored a motion recommending that the county "reimagine jail construction."

They are calling for "a targeted and comprehensive study of who the people who are in our jails are, and what works to put them and their families on a path towards maintaining healthy, stable, and productive lives in their communities" before committing to any particular action on the Men's Central Jail site.

Separately, Supervisors Janice Hahn and Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed that CCTF "is not the answer."

However, they recommended awarding the contract for the site to McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. and then working with the contractor over the next three months on a design for a Mental Health Treatment Center to be run by the Department of Health Services and staffed by the Department of Mental Health.

"The design must support a treatment-first approach, with appropriate security measures in place, with the ultimate goal of diversion to community-based mental health treatment wherever possible," according to the Hahn and Ridley-Thomas motion.

Just what role custody officials would have was not immediately clear, though sources said the facility would not be designed solely for people in custody and could include beds for individuals diverted from jail into treatment.

Members of the JusticeLA Coalition told City News Service the language of Hahn and Ridley-Thomas' motion was in alignment with their vision of no new jails and scaling up alternatives, but the lack of specific directives raised some concerns that changes might be only cosmetic.

"It has to be a decentralized, community, clinical service model that serves the whole county," said Lex Steppling, director of policies and campaigns at Dignity & Power Now. "That will be more cost-effective, that will create jobs ... it will offer a higher quality and more direct quality of service to the communities that have been so harmed by L.A.'s mass jailing crisis."

The coalition recommended five separate mental health treatment centers, one in each supervisorial district, to help build local capacity, rather than "one monolithic hospital that essentially functions as a jail," said Ivette Ale, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

Coalition members also urged the county to truly stop and take stock before locking down any decisions, particularly given the number of proposed county studies of the jail population and alternatives to incarceration.

"Making any decision around construction and awarding a contract and setting a number of specific beds, even for this mental health facility, is a little premature," Ale said.

One important step is determining how many people actually need to be in custody to keep the public safe.

Of the roughly 17,000 inmates in county jail on any given day, "the vast majority of those have no business being in a cage ... have no business being removed from their community," Steppling said. "Every big city that has

scaled up diversion has had very positive, statistically proven impacts with regard to public safety."

Sheriff Alex Villanueva -- who has drawn some support from criminal justice advocates for comments about reducing the jail population and condemnation from others for what seem to be efforts to rollback reforms related to deputy discipline -- has said he would work on alternatives to Mira Loma Detention Center for presentation to the board.

However, his stance on the board proposals was not immediately available.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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