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Where blame lies for failures in jails

January 06, 2007

Re "No easy fix for the jail system," news analysis, Dec. 30

Elected officials are blaming everyone but themselves for the disaster of L.A. County's jails. In particular, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich's swipe at the American Civil Liberties Union as the "American Criminal Liberties Union" reveals the schoolyard name-calling that distracts us from the tragedy of our jails.

Deplorable jail conditions serve neither the requirements of rehabilitation nor retribution. Cramming prisoners, 90% of whom have not been convicted, into tiny cells, withholding needed medical care and exposing them and sheriff's deputies to jailhouse violence and diseases such as staph pose a serious public safety hazard for those inside and out.

As The Times' reporting has shown, overcrowded jails demoralize young deputies who will someday patrol our communities. They discourage prisoners seeking to reform and encourage the hardened. And they can be deadly places for those with diseases and mental illness. Jam-packed jails don't deliver justice.

RAMONA RIPSTON

Los Angeles

The writer is executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

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The attack on the ACLU by Antonovich aptly demonstrates the pitiful lack of leadership by the Board of Supervisors and why the L.A. County jail system remains, as it was described by a member of the grand jury in the 1950s, a "disgrace to civilization." Antonovich condemns the ACLU for being the messenger and for enforcing the constitutional rights of all Americans, even those who end up in jails.

County leaders, including Sheriff Lee Baca, seem to ignore that, in 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice found hundreds of unconstitutional conditions and abuse of inmates by deputies and inmates and a failure to investigate. County leaders still -- 10 years later -- remain under the watchful eye of the federal government under a consent decree-type of monitoring and have yet to comply with the conditions they agreed to remedy. Baca, Antonovich and other supervisors have the power, money and authority to do what's right. But as long as they blame everyone except themselves, we can expect that the jails will continue to be as described by The Times article: "A system plagued by years of cascading failures."

R. SAMUEL PAZ

Culver City

The writer, a civil rights attorney, is vice president of the national ACLU.

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