By Abby Sewell
May 6, 2014
After years of debate about how to best modernize the county’s aging and troubled jail system, Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday for a $2-billion plan to replace the deteriorating downtown Men’s Central Jail and create a new women’s jail.
They also voted to undertake an extensive study into how the county could divert more mentally ill offenders away from the jail system altogether.
Recent scandals and federal investigations into the mistreatment of inmates by their Sheriff’s Department jailers added urgency to Tuesday’s action, but supervisors — two of whom will soon be leaving office — remained divided over what to do about the jails and at what cost.
Under the plan, the county would tear down the system’s overcrowded downtown cornerstone and replace it with a new two-tower, 4,860-bed jail. It would be geared toward inmates with mental health issues but would also have beds for high-security inmates and those requiring drug and medical treatment.
The county would also replace the women’s jail in Lynwood with a 1,600 bed “campus-like” facility at the now-vacant Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.
The plan will not significantly increase the number of beds in the overcrowded county jail system but is intended to help the jails comply with federal mandates on the treatment of mentally ill inmates.
Board Chairman Don Knabe said in a statement, “We have addressed the safety needs of both our staff and inmates, and developed plans to better manage our jail population by focusing on the need for comprehensive mental health and drug rehabilitation services.”
The proposal has drawn fire from several quarters. Advocates have criticized the board for hiring a construction firm to recommend how to handle the county’s jail population without looking for ways to divert mentally ill offenders from lockups.
The critics included several of the candidates running to be the next sheriff, who argued that the board should wait until a new top cop and two new county supervisors take office in December before making any decisions. Retired sheriff’s commander Bob Olmsted said the plan “doesn’t address the real issue” of dealing with the mentally ill. And Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said that although the jail needs to be replaced, “My fear is that we’re moving too quickly without including enough stakeholders and subject matter experts.”
Supervisor Gloria Molina, who will be termed-out in the fall, said deciding on a construction option is only the first step in a long process and that replacing the jail is “inevitable” for whoever takes office. “They’re going to have to replace the jail, whether they like it or not,” she said.
Molina, Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe voted in favor of the plan, with termed-out Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky voting no and Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining.
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