Think be­fore you build

L.A. County mustn’t con­struct costly new jails based on out­dated facts and nonex­is­tent needs.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY OPINION -

A Cal­i­for­nia board with $500 mil­lion to award for jail con­struc­tion is set on Wed­nes­day to be­gin a two-month process un­der which coun­ties can ap­ply for the money. Per­haps not coin­ci­den­tally, the Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors has be­fore it on Tues­day re­ports from the sher­iff and other of­fi­cials on their plans for a $2-bil­lion re­place­ment project for Men’s Cen­tral Jail, as ap­proved in prin­ci­ple by the su­per­vi­sors a year ago. The tim­ing might ap­pear per­fect. It’s not. Both pro­cesses are mov­ing too quickly and are too likely to re­sult in con­struc­tion of ex­pen­sive new jails built around out­moded think­ing, out­dated cir­cum­stances and nonex­is­tent needs.

The in­mate pop­u­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia has changed dras­ti­cally in the last sev­eral years, first due to a con­tin­u­ing drop in crime, then be­cause of state laws adopted in 2011 that made coun­ties and their jails re­spon­si­ble for many low-level felons who pre­vi­ously had been housed in the state prison sys­tem. The Board of State and Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tions grew out of that process of “crim­i­nal jus­tice re­align­ment” and is charged, in part, with mak­ing sure coun­ties have what they need to han­dle their new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

But the point of re­align­ment was never to merely dump the state’s prob­lems onto the coun­ties, nor to empty over­crowded state pris­ons just by mov­ing the inmates to over­crowded county jails. The point was to re­duce reliance on in­car­cer­a­tion as a cure-all for crime and to al­low the lo­cal gov­ern­ments that bore the ex­penses of polic­ing and pros­e­cut­ing to also make de­ci­sions about how best to re­duce re­cidi­vism and re­duce the bur­den that crime places on their com­mu­ni­ties.

Re­align­ment, then, would not be fur­thered but rather un­der­mined by a large pro­gram of county jail con­struc­tion. Such a pro­gram would make it all too easy for coun­ties to shirk their obli­ga­tion to fo­cus on treat­ment and other al­ter­na­tives in­tended to pre­vent peo­ple from re­turn­ing to crime af­ter they serve their sen­tences.

State board of­fi­cials ar­gue that their march­ing or­ders are to al­lo­cate money to build any num­ber of crim­i­nal jus­tice fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing treat­ment cen­ters, day re­port­ing cen­ters and other al­ter­na­tives to in­car­cer­a­tion — pre­cisely those projects needed to make re­align­ment a suc­cess. And that’s great, as far as it goes. Los An­ge­les and the state’s 57 other coun­ties need that kind of help.

But the money also is avail­able for jails. And by in­clud­ing in its process such a rapid turn­around time for coun­ties to put in their bids, and by of­fer­ing the money on a use-itor-lose-it ba­sis, the board is en­cour­ag­ing coun­ties to quickly grab the funds and move for­ward with the projects they know best: jails. The board should pro­vide a longer ap­pli­ca­tion pe­riod and as­sis­tance to coun­ties in as­sess­ing their needs.

Mean­while, the need for jail beds has shrunk even fur­ther, most dra­mat­i­cally with the vot­ers’ adop­tion six months ago of Propo­si­tion 47. That ini­tia­tive con­verted six felonies to mis­de­meanors and thus short­ened the po­ten­tial jail time for many thou­sands of inmates, de­creas­ing the need for tra­di­tional lockup but in­creas­ing the need for al­ter­na­tive pro­grams and fa­cil­i­ties.

The leg­is­la­tion au­tho­riz­ing the con­struc­tion fund­ing was signed more than a year be­fore Propo­si­tion 47 was adopted. The money should be of­fered, and coun­ties should be able to ap­ply for it, only af­ter they have had suf­fi­cient time to fully as­sess the new crim­i­nal jus­tice land­scape, in­clud­ing their re­duced need for jail beds and the sav­ings they are sure to re­al­ize from no longer pros­e­cut­ing as many felonies.

And Los An­ge­les, as the county that sends about a third of all of Cal­i­for­nia’s inmates to state pris­ons and lo­cal jails, should not seek the fund­ing for its mas­sive Men’s Cen­tral Jail re­place­ment project with­out mak­ing full use of pro­grams that can re­duce the jail pop­u­la­tion and thus de­crease the size and the cost of build­ing, fi­nanc­ing, man­ag­ing and main­tain­ing the jail.

The county should, for ex­am­ple, fi­nal­ize and im­ple­ment Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s plan for di­ver­sion of many ac­cused and con­victed peo­ple whose crimes are a con­se­quence of their men­tal ill­ness and who can and should be treated as pa­tients rather than inmates. It should au­tho­rize the sher­iff to re­lease peo­ple await­ing trial if they are el­i­gi­ble for bail but sim­ply don’t have the money. And it should get some greater ex­pe­ri­ence with Propo­si­tion 47, and bet­ter un­der­stand its ef­fect on the need for jail space, be­fore the su­per­vi­sors make ex­pen­sive de­ci­sions about what to build and how much to pay.

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