The following statement is from Melinda Bird, senior counsel at the ACLU of Southern California and director of the ACLU/SC Jails Project. The ACLU/SC monitors conditions in L.A. County Jails as part of a federal court agreement:
Today's proposal from Sheriff Baca and the L.A. County Chief Executive Officer to close half of Men's Central Jail is a positive step that will satisfy many of the Federal Court's concerns about the deplorable conditions in that facility. The ACLU of Southern California also supports the plan to construct new, more efficient women's facilities at Pitchess and Sybil Brand. Jails of this design have lower operating costs, fewer assaults and suicides and even lead to reduced recidivism.
This plan is long-overdue: Men's Central Jail should have been closed years ago. Conditions there are unsafe and inhumane for inmates and deputies alike. For this reason, we urge the County to re-examine its time-frame and empty half the jail now, rather than wait three or four years until new facilities are completed. It is intolerable that the County will consider leaving thousands of inmates in the oldest, most dilapidated sections of Men's Central Jail, locked in crowded, windowless cells for 23 hours per day, until 2011 or 2012. This is too long to wait.
We also commend Sheriff Baca and CEO Fujioka for their leadership in developing a sound strategy to reduce our jail population, as other jurisdictions have done. The new jail plan outlines ways to streamline the pretrial process and reduce pre-sentence detention periods, develop programs to reduce recidivism and increase diversion programs. New York took this approach, and its jail population fell by 30% -- without compromising public safety.
The County has agreed to commission an independent population study that will focus on people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders, who are a significant part of our jail population. More than 70 percent return to jail within a year of release. The jails aren't equipped to handle them, and they become victims of other inmates and of poor medical care. As Sheriff Baca has repeatedly pointed out, Men's Central Jail is our community's largest mental health facility and homeless shelter, purposes for which it was never intended. Smart capital and human investment would rebuild lives, not jails.
Because this jail population study is not scheduled for completion until the summer of 2008, the ACLU/SC opposes the plan to build a new and very costly high-security facility at Mira Loma. Without the study, the County does not know precisely what kinds of beds it will need in the future.
Instead of requiring 1,156 new 'hard-lock' high security beds, the study might instead point to a greater need for specially designed treatment beds for those with mental illness, beds that may be far less expensive to build. We urge the Board of allocate the funds but revisit the actual design and location of these new beds based on the results of the jail population study. The County needs to look at who its inmates are, not just where to put them.