A single-man cell on the 3000 floor of Men's Central Jail. L.A. County… (Los Angeles Times )
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said this week that he may shutter much, if not all, of Men's Central Jail. That's good news considering that just five months ago he and the county's chief executive suggested that the only way to close the decrepit downtown facility would be for the county to shell out $1.4 billion to build two new jails and refurbish a third.
Baca says he owes his change of heart to a new report that concluded the county could shut down the jail, without constructing expensive new facilities or jeopardizing public safety, by using electronic monitoring to release some pretrial detainees who pose no risk to the community.
The sheriff deserves praise for endorsing a sensible plan that will close an aging and notoriously violent jail and free up bed space for more serious defendants awaiting trial. But he can't do it alone. The proposal requires cooperation from the courts and the district attorney's office on setting bail and reaching plea agreements.
No doubt some tough-on-crime advocates will denounce the plan as undermining public safety. But that's unlikely. The proposal, commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and written by a corrections expert who has advised many other states and counties, wouldn't lead to the release of violent felons. Rather, it would result in the release of about 1,000 inmates who face minor charges such as marijuana possession but can't afford to make bail. They would be sent back into the community wearing electronic monitoring devices. The proposal would also allow for an estimated 2,000 inmates who were convicted of nonviolent crimes and who have behaved themselves in jail to serve a portion of their sentences behind bars and another portion in the community, under county supervision.
County officials face tough choices. An estimated 7,000 new inmates are expected to arrive in the coming year as part of the state's prison realignment, which calls for transferring responsibility for nonviolent offenders from the state to the county.
This proposal is an opportunity to alleviate overcrowded conditions in the county's dysfunctional and violent jail system without endangering public safety.