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L.A. county police union blindsided by plan to ‘depopulate’ jails

Board of Supervisors advance a plan that will keep more people out of jail even if they are convicted of misdemeanors and some felonies


Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

By Jason Henry
The Whittier Daily News

LOS ANGELES — A sweeping proposal calling for depopulation and decarceration of the Los Angeles County jails will be considered Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, drawing the ire of an organization representing police chiefs for 45 law enforcement agencies.

The plan advanced by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Lindsey Horvath would declare a “humanitarian crisis” in the jails and advocate for or instruct several county agencies to evaluate, create and expand programs that would keep more people out of a jail, even after they are convicted of misdemeanors and some felonies.

“To depopulate and decarcerate is a monumental task, and the Board is committed to redress historical wrongs, deeply rooted in systemic racism and prejudice, and reverse status quo responses to poverty, mental health and medical needs, and substance use dependencies,” the supervisors wrote in their motion.

The Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association says it was blindsided by the proposal, only learning about it on Friday, and believes it is conspicuously timed to occur during the same week as two major local law enforcement events — the Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay and the Tri-County Police Chiefs Conference.

“In the midst of surging crime rates, pre-arrest decriminalization policies, and a complete shift away from sound public safety responses, it appears the County BOS is poised to exacerbate our current plight,” says a letter from the group to the supervisors, obtained by the Southern California News Group. “We do not stand against reform and we have been active participants in these efforts. However, we are concerned with the rushed motion under conspicuous circumstances, that does not allow for stakeholder participation.”

Solis and Horvath could not be reached for comment Sunday. Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the board’s lone Republican, won’t back the motion.

“A policy discussion as high stakes as depopulating our county’s jail must include collaboration and input from law enforcement partners,” she said in a statement.” This motion has failed to do that so I can not support it. I do support balanced reform efforts but not at the expense of community safety.

The fact that we are still grappling with jail overcrowding despite having instituted multiple diversion policies is proof that my policy position has been correct all along: Men’s Central Jail must be replaced by a thoughtfully planned secure rehabilitative facility that can deliver substance abuse and mental health services desperately needed by the individuals it serves. Over 40% of those incarcerated in our jails have mental illness — their needs must be addressed if we aim to cultivate a safer county.”

‘Care first, jails last’

The latest series of recommendations advances the board’s “care first, jails last” agenda, by asking for changes from the county courts and the state, granting new authority to the sheriff to release more of the incarcerated population, and removing systemic barriers in the county departments that intersect with the justice system.

The Board of Supervisors adopted a “Care First and Community Investment Budget Policy” in 2021 that allocated $200 million from the voter-approved Measure J to community youth programs, job training, rental assistance and developing alternatives to incarceration through “community-based services and non-custodial pretrial, diversion, re-entry and restorative justice programs.”

That same year, it created the “Jail Closure Implementation Team” with the mandate to “safely close and demolish” the Men’s Central Jail without building a replacement.

“For these reasons and to respond to the County’s mass incarceration crisis in a more humane way, the Board must move forward with celerity to utilize its complete authority to advocate for support and reforms from our State and Judicial partners to ensure this County is a truly ‘jails last’ County,” the motion states.

The Police Chiefs Association said it opposes the outright closure of the Men’s Central Jail and the formation of any group to facilitate such an effort without input from police chiefs and representatives of Los Angeles County’s independent cities.

“We are simply asking for more detailed vetting and building of replacement alternatives, and for a seat at the table,” the letter states, requesting that the agenda item be tabled.

Most of the recommendations are aimed at keeping people out of jail to begin with, through reduced bails, pretrial diversion programs and cite-and-release ticketing. Others are designed to help convicted inmates exit the system sooner, through expedited processing and alternative sentencing, in which some or all of a sentence would be spent under house arrest instead.

What the plan would do

Specifically, the motion would:

  • Ask the Los Angeles County Superior Court to extend court hours and reimplement a zero bail policy for most offenses, excluding serious and violent felonies, or those that pose a risk to others, such as driving under the influence or stalking.
  • Direct the sheriff and director of the Justice, Care and Opportunities Department to work with Los Angeles County’s 45 municipal law enforcement partners to increase the use of “cite-and-release” countywide.
  • Instruct the Public Defender’s Office to develop a plan to expand expungement clinics and help more people resolve “failure to appear” warrants.
  • Request that the sheriff develop rules allowing individuals held on bail in county jails for either felonies or misdemeanors to be released back into their communities when safe to do so.
  • Explore opportunities to subsidize transportation to and from court for individuals released pretrial
  • Ask the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney to increase the use of “split sentencing,” a program that divides a sentence between jail and house arrest, as an alternative to incarceration.
  • Develop a pilot to arraign as many individuals as possible via video conferencing to reduce the number of people transferred from local jails to county jails.
  • Direct the county’s chief probation officer to make it more difficult to send someone back to jail for a Post Release Community Supervision violation and to develop alternatives “that do not result in individuals being incarcerated.”

Efforts similar to the current proposal from Solis and Horvath, including Proposition 47 and Assembly Bill 109 also known as the California Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, have resulted in predictable, tragic outcomes from an influx of offenders released into communities, according to the LACPCA

“The consequences have been a steady rise in crime, reduced quality of life, and increased fear within our communities,” says the letter. “Closing Men’s Central Jail will have a very similar effect on communities if the county does what the state did by releasing large numbers of inmates arbitrarily and without community protections in place. Predictable is preventable.”

Proposition 47 was approved by California voters in 2014 to reduce the penalties for certain lower-level drug and property offenses to prioritize prison and jail space for higher-level offenders.

Assembly Bill 109 allows for current nonviolent, nonserious and nonsex offenders to be supervised at the county level after they are released from California state prisons.

The LACPCA said the proposal before the supervisors leaves many questions unanswered, including where inmates will go if Men’s Central is closed and who will supervise their release.

“More importantly, who will ensure the community is protected when these inmates are simply pushed back into communities where resources are stretched and police efforts muted by a host of forced factors?” asks the letter from the chiefs to the supervisors.

Los Angeles County jails currently house more than 1,464 individuals who have been sentenced to state prison. Part of the motion includes sending a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to expedite transfers and release of inmates held on behalf of the state and allow the Sheriff’s Department to release those individuals directly from local custody when applicable.

The supervisors also would support legislative proposals that call for an end to non-safety-related towing of vehicles; a statewide zero bail schedule, similar to the Superior Court system used during the pandemic; and permanent funding for pretrial diversion services.

If the motion is approved, county officials will be tasked with developing tools to track and model jail populations and to help better assess individuals who could qualify for early release.

Los Angeles County’s Justice, Care and Opportunities Department is expected to provide timelines on the implementation of the motion within 60 days and quarterly progress reports to the board.

‘Dangerous and reckless’

Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which represents about 900 LA County prosecutors, calls the proposal from Solis and Horvath “dangerous and reckless,” and claims it guts portions of the legal system without input from valuable stakeholders.

“The authors sought no advice from those who know and understand public safety issues,” he said in an email Sunday. “They seek to lower the jail population without addressing the root causes of crime or protecting the public.”

Siddall noted the proposal directs law enforcement to cite and release suspects for offenses such as illegally carrying a gun, domestic violence, possession of child pornography and some violent crimes, including residential burglary, robbery, and assault with a firearm.

“This catch-and-release program comes without any plan or infrastructure to protect the community from violent criminals apprehended by law enforcement,” he said. “Further, it creates no lockdown facilities for the mentally ill. This program benefits no one, except career criminals. We need to make sure the most dangerous offenders don’t get out, that first-time offenders don’t come back, and that those with serious mental illnesses get appropriate care and help. This does none of that.”

The proposal seems to be the major last step in fulfilling the progressive decarceration ambitions of the supervisors and progressive Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, said Steve Cooley, a former district attorney for the county.

“The biggest danger to public safety and quality of life in Los Angeles County happens to be some members of the Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles County District Attorney,” Cooley said in an email. “This sort of thinking pervades at the state level. Los Angeles County has done an awful job with diversion programs in general, dealing with the mentally ill, and the plethora of drug addicts who litter the streets.

“Those on the board trying to slip this through without any real notice to or comment from the public should be called out.”

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