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Half-measures won't fix L.A.'s jails

Editorial

A citizens commission will soon make its recommendations on preventing violence and abuse in the L.A. County facilities. Real structural reform is needed.

September 14, 2012
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca blames his staff for keeping him in the dark about inmate abuse and other misconduct by deputies, yet even since the complaints began rolling in publicly about a year ago, he hasn't held anyone accountable or made significant staff changes.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca blames his staff for keeping him in the… (Los Angeles Times )

The Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence has spent the better part of this year listening to testimony and reviewing thousands of documents, and soon it will propose fixes for the problems it has identified. It faces a daunting task.

For starters, the commission must decide whether reform of the long-troubled county jails is possible under Sheriff Lee Baca, who has emerged in the testimony as an out-of-touch figure overly reliant on his command staff. The sheriff has proved ineffective, at best, at running the jails. He blames his staff for keeping him in the dark about inmate abuse and other misconduct by deputies, yet despite repeated complaints over a period of years, he hasn't held anyone accountable or made significant staff changes.

He failed to file inmate complaints in

the personnel records of deputies accused of misconduct, making it nearly impossible for such evidence to be used by inmates in criminal defense trials. Although Baca says he's taken steps to reduce abuse in recent months, there's no way to know whether the reduction will continue once he and his office are out of the spotlight.

The commission should also consider whether the current department structure makes sense in a county as vast as Los Angeles. Can a single sheriff manage the largest jail system in the nation as well as providing public safety to dozens of cities and unincorporated areas? One suggestion that has been made is to split the department and hire an independent corrections expert to run the jails with the help of professional guards; the expert might report to the sheriff, or directly to the county Board of Supervisors. The sheriff would retain full authority over patrols, with deputies assigned to the streets instead of working as jailers, which they weren't trained to do.

Some have suggested that the commission look to the Los Angeles Police Department — whose chief is not elected but appointed by the mayor and reports to a civilian oversight board — as a model for change. But that would require amending the state Constitution. And if that were to happen, who would select the sheriff? The Board of Supervisors doesn't have the best track record of overseeing troubled departments.

The questions facing the commission are tricky ones, but clearly, change is needed. We hope the commission's work leads to real, effective and lasting reforms rather than half-measures that accomplish little or pages of proposals that gather dust on a shelf in the county Hall of Administration.

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