Editorial: $2 billion jail expansion plan is a mistake

Posted on May 20th, 2014 in the Los Angeles Register

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently voted to expand the scandal-ridden county jail system, with a $2 billion plan to replace the decrepit Men’s Central Jail and construct a new women’s jail. Given the lack of consideration of viable alternatives to incarceration that have the potential to reduce recidivism, the jail population and cost to taxpayers, the decision to move forward with the jail expansion plan is a mistake.

While there are currently around 19,000 inmates, the plan approved by the board assumes a constant population of 20,000. This figure also assumes alternatives to incarceration either won’t exist or won’t have a significant impact.

As counties across the state are proving, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration can successfully reduce jail populations without compromising public safety. From expanded electronic monitoring to day reporting centers, many counties are innovating how they manage their jail population. One study of the Los Angeles County system found that modest reforms other counties are using can safely reduce the present jail population by 3,200 in just three years.

“While other counties throughout the state are finding safe ways to reduce their reliance on incarceration, the Board of Supervisors is moving in the opposite direction,” says Diana Zuniga of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

One common-sense area in need of reform is how the county manages offenders with mental health issues. It’s a disgrace that our jail system has been labeled, by Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, “the largest mental health ward in the country.” With over 3,000 offenders with known mental health issues, Los Angeles needs to follow the example of other counties that have realized that jails are inappropriate places for those in need of mental health treatment. Rather than sending such individuals to jails, San Francisco and Miami-Dade counties have implemented programs diverting low-level offenders with mental health issues into treatment centers. These programs not only reduce recidivism, but they save taxpayers in the process – up to $10,000 per participant in San Francisco – just by providing a basic continuum of care.

County jail systems are significantly impacted by the influx of non-serious, non-sexual, non-violent offenders serving their time in the county jail system pursuant to the state’s “realignment” efforts. Counties such as Contra Costa and Riverside have adjusted by having up to 90 percent of these offenders serve split sentences, through which individuals serve a portion of their sentence in custody and the remainder under a structured, supervised reentry process. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County uses split sentences just 5 percent to 6 percent of the time. Worse, the 94 percent who serve their terms without split sentences are released without any system in place to facilitate re-entry – no supervision, and no structure. This does not serve public safety needs and keeps jail populations needlessly high.

Rather than throwing billions of dollars on a plan that will only perpetuate cycles of incarceration, Los Angeles County needs to revisit its decision, and better evaluate and implement proven models of managing offenders without relying on a larger than necessary jail system.

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