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No easy fix for the jail system

Amid an atmosphere of helplessness, leading L.A. County officials can only point fingers as unresolved problems continue to grow.

December 30, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

Charged with administering a jail system that shuffles repeat offenders through custody, fails to supply adequate medical care to many inmates and imposes burdens on courts and taxpayers, Los Angeles County leaders this week reverted to the strategies that have gotten them this far:

Supervisors defended their recent spending, blamed others for the jail troubles and suggested that the sheriff should manage jails better, while the sheriff said the problems are bigger than he can control.

In the end, said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the big fix for the county's jail woes may be in replacing Men's Central Jail, the antiquated and overflowing facility at the center of the system. But cost estimates top $1 billion, and the county does not have that money to spend, he said.

"The county cannot and will not do that on its own nickel," said Yaroslavsky, who chairs the five-member board.

In the meantime, the supervisors have dug deep to find money for additional beds and jail services. In the last 18 months alone, Yaroslavsky said, the county has spent $435 million, a sum that will pay for 7,790 additional beds. The supervisors also have approved a plan to add $10 million a year for four years to jail medical services.

"That's a huge investment," he said. "This is not a case where the board has been unaware of the problem. It is not a case where the board is being stingy.... This is not just a money problem. It's a management issue."

Sheriff Lee Baca disagrees. The disrepair in the county's jails, he said, is symptomatic of a larger, statewide retreat from leadership in public safety.

Today, Los Angeles County, which has the nation's largest jail system, spends about half as much per inmate as New York City, a figure Baca calls "troublesome to me." And efforts to improve communication between jailers and parole, probation and police officers are largely nonexistent, Baca said.

"California has pretty well bargained away its future in public safety," he added. "Management is not going to solve that problem."

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the board's longest-serving member, identifies illegal immigration as the central culprit, arguing that if the cost of incarcerating those inmates could be eliminated, the county would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Antonovich also criticizes the American Civil Liberties Union, which he calls the "American Criminal Liberties Union," for lobbying on behalf of reduced jail crowding.

"They never met a criminal they didn't like," Antonovich said last week, emphasizing that part of a solution to jail problems is waging a successful legal struggle against the ACLU.

Those comments, along with others from top county officials, reflect the degree of helplessness that many in power feel with regard to local jails, whose troubling problems were illustrated by a series of stories published this month in The Times.

As supervisors consider those issues, they see a money pit even as law enforcement officials ask for more. County leaders note that the problems of inmates don't move voters to approve money, and the state offers little in the way of a solution.

Meanwhile, conservatives fault civil libertarians and illegal immigrants; liberals bemoan a system that denies basic services, such as medical care, to inmates -- many of them not even convicted of crimes.

With all that, the county debates the issues year after year but never completely resolves them. And so the problems deepen.

None of this is new. In fact, the historical record is one of misguided staffing and construction policies, as well as missed opportunities to anticipate trends in crime and failures to adjust to more violent and dangerous inmates.

In recent years, the sheriff has responded to those cascading failures by letting most inmates out early, which churns thousands of prisoners through the system and erodes the deterrent effect of sentencing.

No one likes early release. And yet, even if it were possible to abolish that unpopular program, it would have consequences.

"Curtailing early releases exacerbates overcrowding and idleness," Merrick Bobb, who serves as special counsel to the board on the Sheriff's Department, wrote in a recent assessment of the jail system. "Overcrowding and idleness create unhappiness and provoke tension; unhappiness and tension provoke disturbances and riots; and the presence of high-risk inmates in dorms and cells alongside the more peaceful and vulnerable ones erodes safety and security...."

Baca himself acknowledges that past decisions have brought the county to where it is.

"We didn't use enough foresight," the sheriff said.

In the late 1950s, men and boys locked up in Los Angeles were being forced to sleep on jail floors. A series of grand juries demanded action by the county Board of Supervisors. One grand juror described the sight of more than 1,000 inmates sleeping on floors as a "disgrace to civilization."

What ensued would establish the pattern for jail construction and staffing in modern Los Angeles County.

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