Responding to deadly riots, cramped inmate conditions and the early release of thousands of criminals, Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday approved a package of reforms designed to expand and improve security at the county's overcrowded and dangerous jails.
The centerpiece of the plan involves building barracks for female inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic and reopening the long-shuttered Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Monterey Park, despite objections from local residents.
The new facilities would allow Sheriff's Department officials to remove women now housed at a maximum-security jail in Lynwood and replace them with more dangerous male inmates. A series of race riots that left two prisoners dead and hundreds injured this year was blamed in part on a shortage of maximum-security beds for men.
The plan also includes ending a $27.4-million annual contract with the state to house 1,292 state parole violators, thus freeing up much-needed beds for county prisoners. And closed-circuit monitoring cameras and other security improvements would be added at existing jails.
The supervisors' decision is an important step, but it will take an estimated three years before the improvements can take effect. At $258 million in construction costs, the proposal is the cheapest and least far-reaching of six that were offered by Sheriff Lee Baca and county budget officials last month. Most of that money was allocated by supervisors in June.
Unlike most of the other proposals, the plan supervisors approved does not require the political risks of raising taxes, asking voters to approve a bond measure or financing long-term debt to pay for construction of jails.
Nevertheless, the decision by the board provides Baca with much of what he asked for in March after explosive race riots between black and Latino inmates.
"This is a monumental movement in restoring the jails' integrity," he said. "The county cannot fund all of the solution, but this is a big step in the right direction."
Baca said further expansion of the jails is necessary. He called on the state to intervene with a bond measure to aid Los Angeles County and other struggling jail systems around California, where overcrowded conditions and early release of criminals have become commonplace.
Tuesday's action comes amid mounting pressure on county supervisors to solve three of the most serious issues facing the jails: inmate violence, the early release of convicted criminals and chronic overcrowding. A federal judge has ordered the county to reduce crowded conditions at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
"Today, I think we really didn't have a lot of choice," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
Burke said she thought the county's plan would show the court that it was serious about tackling overcrowding.
Under the plan, 2,024 beds will be added to the nation's largest jail system, allowing sheriff's officials to house up to 21,195 inmates. That is far fewer than the 24,400 beds the jail system had in 2000, before budget hits in 2002 and 2003 resulted in the closure of several jails, requiring jailers to release thousands of inmates before the end of their sentences.
Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the Board of Supervisors on law enforcement issues, said that they could have gone further but that he welcomed Tuesday's decision, saying it would help jailers keep dangerous inmates away from more vulnerable ones.
"A number of the inmate deaths and disturbances that we've witnessed in the jails as of late may not have occurred had there been the ability to move individuals" to maximum-security cells, Bobb said.
But Jody Kent, jails project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, faulted the board for not taking more aggressive action to improve conditions at Men's Central Jail. The facility, she said, needs a dramatic overhaul or replacement.
"Men's Central Jail is not safe for inmates or deputies working inside there," Kent said. "As long as they continue to add beds where they are warehousing inmates 24/7 in lockdown, then the community is going to continue to be at risk."
Though the new jail space will not eliminate the early release of inmates, Baca told supervisors that ending the county's contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation would help sheriff's officials to keep criminals locked up longer.
About 90% of inmates cannot be released because they are awaiting trial, sentencing or transportation to state prison. That leaves room for only 2,000 criminals sentenced to serve time in county jail. The extra beds from the state contract will increase that figure by more than 50%.
"That's pretty big," Baca said. "We will have a substantial impact on the early-release program."
A Times investigation this year found nearly 16,000 cases of people being arrested on suspicion of new crimes when jail records indicated they would have been incarcerated on previous convictions if not for early releases.
Sheriff's officials said they also hoped to more than double the number of inmates sent home with electronic monitoring or enrolled in other sentencing programs for the length of their full sentences.
That would allow jailers to supervise low-level offenders released to their homes while keeping more serious criminals behind bars longer.
Inmates must agree to enroll in such programs, but there is little incentive when most county prisoners are released after serving no more than 10% of their jail terms.
On Tuesday, the board also backed a proposal by Supervisor Don Knabe to ask state lawmakers to draft legislation that would allow judges to order convicted criminals to enter such programs.