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Editorial

L.A. County should be careful on jails

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca needs to show he can properly run the jails he already has before a $1.4-billion building project is approved.

November 23, 2011
  • A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy prepares to unlock a security door inside L.A. County Men's Central Jail. In the coming weeks, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to decide whether to approve a $1.4 billion jail construction project that would help ease overcrowding at Men?s Central. (Los Angeles Times)
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy prepares to unlock a security…

In the coming weeks, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to decide whether to approve a $1.4-billion jail construction project that would help ease overcrowding at Men's Central Jail and prevent the early release of some inmates. The county's chief executive and Sheriff Lee Baca argue that the plan, which calls for rebuilding one facility and expanding a second, would make the nation's largest jail system safer and cheaper to operate.

It's hard to argue with the need or the logic. The Men's Central building is so dilapidated and so overcrowded that in 2006, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson described conditions as "not consistent with human values." Renovations would make it safer for deputies as well as for inmates. What is questionable, however, is whether Baca should be given new or refurbished jails when he's so clearly struggling to run the ones he has.

Federal authorities are investigating reports of inmate abuse and deputy misconduct at Men's Central and other jails. Baca has blamed his top command staff for shielding him from reports of abuse — including some in which deputies used unnecessary force, then escaped punishment because of shoddy investigations by supervisors — but he has refused to discipline anyone. And he has only begrudgingly agreed to reinvestigate complaints filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which include affidavits from chaplains and civilian eyewitnesses who said they saw deputies beating inmates.

Responding to those complaints, the Board of Supervisors has pressed Baca to make changes, but even now, he is moving slowly. This month, Baca admitted that his department had installed only a fraction of the cameras that are needed in the jails. And he has been reluctant to abandon the use of standard-issue flashlights that deputies allegedly use as weapons to beat inmates.

Moreover, the sheriff has some 4,000 available beds across the county jail system, but they go unused because the department can't afford to hire additional deputies to guard the inmates that would fill them. At Twin Towers Jail, which the county spent $373 million to build, 1,000 beds are unoccupied.

Yes, the county's jails need help, and Men's Central needs to be replaced. But the Sheriff's Department should demonstrate that it can properly operate the jails already under its control before it asks taxpayers to spend another $1.4 billion.

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