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EDITORIAL

Building a better Men's Central Jail

Five construction options that range in cost from $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion have been offered. Unfortunately, questions remain.

July 17, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted in March to undertake a comprehensive study to help figure out what should replace the aging Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Above: Prison inmates are watched by members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept at the Men's Central Jail.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted in March to undertake… (Los Angeles Times )

Most people agree that Men's Central Jail should be shuttered. The antiquated facility in downtown Los Angeles has been described as a dungeon where inmates and guards alike are in danger, where prisoners are packed in like sardines and where mental illness regularly goes untreated. But what should replace the jail has been the source of debate for nearly a decade.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors finally appeared poised to answer that question in March, when it hired Vanir Construction Management Inc. to conduct a comprehensive study to determine exactly what was needed. On Tuesday, Vanir submitted its findings, along with five construction options that range in cost from $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion, all of which would include building a new mental health treatment center.

Unfortunately, Vanir failed to provide some crucial information that critics have long sought. It did not undertake a study, for instance, to determine how many beds the county jails will need in the years ahead based on the security classification of inmates, nor did it do a risk-assessment study to determine which inmates belong in the jails and which have mental health needs that would be better addressed by alternatives to incarceration.

Moreover, the Vanir report fails to identify whether cheaper and more effective options exist for pretrial inmates, who account for a large share of the current jail population. Nor does it consider whether the jail population could be reduced through reforms such as "split sentencing," which would allow nonviolent felons to serve a portion of time in jail and another portion in the community, under supervision by the Department of Probation, in return for mandated participation in rehabilitation programs.

We understand that the supervisors may be feeling an urgency to move forward on this long-delayed project. But approving a jail construction plan without a comprehensive, well-thought-out understanding of what is needed to fix the problem won't resolve the county's troubles. Fortunately, there is still time for the county to gather the information that is needed.

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