LA county officials approve first step to long-awaited jail system reform
“The eyes of the nation will be watching as we try to transform a system defined too often by jail bars and barbed-wire fences to a community-based system"
LOS ANGELES COUNTY — L.A County leaders started down a “transformational” path on Tuesday, March 10, approving a county road map that attempts to reform a jail system long populated by the most vulnerable populations in the region.
On any given day, 17,000 inmates fill that system from Pomona to L.A, including homeless residents, the mentally ill and people battling drug and alcohol addiction. But it’s a broken system, and has been that way for generations, community members and leaders said Tuesday before a chamber packed with hundreds of supporters, many of whom had experienced the jail system.
The board heard hundreds of personal accounts in favor of “Care First, Jails Last,” a county plan that seeks to make incarceration “a last resort” and treatment a first priority.
Officials did not say that jails aren’t needed. But Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Keuhl urged creative alternatives to incarceration that could impact future detention facilities, with “restorative villages” replacing jail cells.
Reporters got an early look at the report accompanying the “Jails last” plan on Monday, prepared by the County Work Group on Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI).
In L.A. County, the numbers are staggering, leaders say:
“This is not just aspirational,” said Kuehl, who along Ridley-Thomas pushed for approval on the dais. “Oh yeah. It’s aspiration. It speaks of our hopes. But it also provides a real path that we can follow and adopt.”
The goal? Stopping what officials call a “pipeline” that keeps pushing generations of people into the region’s criminal justice system, with devastating results for communities and families.
On Tuesday, leaders approved the road map and its 114 recommendations and early action steps — such as studying how much will all cost.
But making it happen will be a mammoth undertaking, requiring multiple county departments, including the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office.
Decision-makers in the county’s courts would be given more latitude in determining where a defendant in any case might go: Straight to jail or on to treatment.
The plan also calls for collaboration with health and treatment systems and programs that create and secure affordable housing.
There was some concern on the dais about whether building up capacity in such facilities as treatment centers would meet with NIMBYism from neighbors, an enduring issue with placing homeless housing in communities.
“Those are the conversations that are going to be tough. But we’re going to have to have them,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said.
At stake, leaders said, is whether the county becomes a leader in criminal-justice reform or extends a system in which 30% of the entire jail population has a serious mental health disorder and 60% of people released from prison have a “significant substance-use disorder,” according to the report
The group preparing the report is a coalition of private, community advocates and public leaders, who have worked over the last year to rethink the largest jail system in the U.S. that “imprisons more people than any other nation on earth.”
“The eyes of the nation will be watching L.A. County as we try to transform a system defined too often by jail bars and barbed-wire fences and a law enforcement response to a community-based system of care responses where care and service comes first and jail is absolutely the last resort,” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, President & CEO, The California Endowment, who along with his 25 members representing county agencies and departments, advocates and community leaders developed the visioning document.
In many cases “they don’t have to end up handcuffed in a judges chamber in the first place,” said Hill, noting that the system is spending loads of money “over-punishing” people rather than investing in treatment that could break the cycle.
Ross called the document part spiritual statement, part moral statement and part strategic statement.
The group’s 114 recommendations — many of which were shifted into gear six years ago as the board’s composition changed — were folded into five broader strategies for the county to double down on:
Expanding the scale of holistic services in the county. Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas, a co-author of the motion with fellow supervisor Sheila Kuehl, envisioned a network of “restorative villages,” where instead of jailing people, a court could send people for treatment, perhaps at large reusable county properties.
Instead of law enforcement responses for people experiencing mental health problems, the report suggests more behavioral intervention, more pre-trial release of detainees who would otherwise be incarcerated, more treatment services as an alternative to jail time, including time at hubs such as “sobering centers" and a focus on eliminating racial disparities.
“You can’t talk about this issue of incarceration, you can’t talk about the issue of homeless, without dealing with the issue of racism head on, and that’s what this support seeks to do,” Ridley-Thomas said.
It wasn’t clear how such a massive institutional and cultural change would be paid for. Officials said much of the institutional push is already happening, but Ridley-Thomas said it needs to happen on a much larger scale.
Money exists for such an initiative, but local leaders would be looking to state and federal sources, too, officials said.
Former and current sheriff’s department officials supported the effort create the report.
Bruce Chase, assistant sheriff of the department’s Custody Division, supported the report, adding that “we have no vested interest in maintaining the inmate population at current levels.”
The county may have seen a first glimpse of this approach when the board voted two years ago voted to replace Men’s Central Jail to replace with a combination clinic- jail facility, at a cost of $2.2 billion.
“We do intend to replace men’s central, because it’s a mess,” Kuehl said. “But with what? We haven’t gotten enough consensus on no jails at all. So what we’re trying to do is analyze, well, what is a jail for, and therefore what do you construct if you do need to incarcerate people? For how long and for what?”
- Prison Reform