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How to fix L.A. County's jails

The Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence has provided a sensible way forward for Sheriff Lee Baca and county officials.

October 08, 2012|By Richard Drooyan and Miriam Aroni Krinsky
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is supervises the largest jail system in the nation, says he plans to implement all the reforms suggested by a commission in the wake of allegations that a culture of violence flourished in his jails.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is supervises the largest jail… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

After nine months of investigating the inappropriate use of force by deputies in Los Angeles County jails, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence arrived at an inescapable conclusion. As the commission's report put it: "The sheriff did not pay enough attention to the jails."

The commission, which we served as general counsel and executive director, found that there has been a persistent pattern of inappropriate force used against inmates. And although concerns had been raised repeatedly, Sheriff Lee Baca did not begin to address the problem until the violence made headlines last year.

Once the commission drew these conclusions, it had to wrestle with how to proceed. Some things were obvious. Men's Central Jail is a dungeon-like facility that should be replaced. Additional cameras should be installed in the jails to deter excessive force and enhance investigation of these incidents. And efforts should be made to reduce the inmate population by expediting the release on bond of pretrial detainees charged with minor, nonviolent offenses.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

But these steps, though important, won't solve the problem of excessive force in the jails.

Baca points out, accurately, that since he began to focus on reducing excessive force in the jails last fall, the number of force incidents by deputies has gone down, as have inmate assaults on deputies. But many of the measures the sheriff has taken are stopgap, and serious underlying problems remain.

One involves staffing. The Sheriff's Department still assigns new deputies to serve as jailers immediately after leaving the academy. These assignments can last years, which means that men and women who joined the department to be patrol deputies instead find themselves working as corrections officers. Not surprisingly, many of those serving in the jails would rather be elsewhere.

Another fundamental problem involves attitudes. The commission concluded from evidence, and from a report submitted to us by the deputies' union, that many of those who serve in the jails are reluctant to abandon a culture in which force has too often been a first option rather than a last resort.

The commission considered taking jail operations away from the sheriff altogether and creating a custody department. But that would not only require legislative action, it would also raise the thorny issue of how the head of such a department would be selected. He or she would either have to be elected, which would politicize a position that requires extensive professional experience, or be appointed by the Board of Supervisors, which would lessen the accountability that a single boss can provide.

As the commission's report noted, if the board were to oversee a stand-alone custody department, its head would "be accountable to five supervisors, who need a majority vote to act and are likely to have different views on the operation of the jails." Further, simply taking custody operations away from the sheriff would not address the supervision, training, disciplinary and culture concerns the commission identified. In the end, the report recommended an entirely new approach by the Sheriff's Department to running the jails, not an entirely new county department.

In order to have meaningful and lasting reform after the spotlight on the jails recedes, the Sheriff's Department should conduct a nationwide search for a professional and experienced corrections leader to run the department's custody operations. The commission concluded that because "accountability is an absolute necessity," this person should report directly to the sheriff, while the sheriff, in turn, is accountable to the voters.

The commission's report also recommended a new approach to staffing that recognizes the differences between patrol and corrections work. Deputies would be recruited to two tracks: One for those seeking careers as corrections officers, the other for deputies with a desire to patrol communities. This would not only change the culture in the jails but would also improve morale, since those serving in the jails would be there because they had chosen to be.The report recommended hiring additional civilian custody assistants to support deputies. Increasing the proportion of civilian staff would save money that could pay for additional oversight, including an independent inspector general.

Last week, Baca announced that he intends to implement the commission's 63 recommendations. This is welcome, but there will need to be independent monitoring to ensure that these commitments are met.

In testimony before the commission, Baca was asked how he should be held accountable for the problems in the jails, and he responded: "Don't elect me." While this response elicited laughter from some, we believe that the sheriff got it right; voters should not reelect him unless he can demonstrate that he has implemented lasting and meaningful reforms in the jails.

Richard Drooyan is general counsel and Miriam Aroni Krinsky is executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence.

The commission's final report is available here.

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