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Since the building of the Twin Towers almost 17 years ago, Los Angeles county has been dealing with jail overcrowding, federal investigations over excessive use of force, and an almost $1 billion budget for jails.

No More Jails

Given all of the shifts in leadership, in jail construction plans, in mandated jail reduction policies and in growing community pressure, is LA really committed to building new jails and high levels of incarceration?

Time and time again, there has been a new proposal to invest in the failed jail system and in misguided attempts to alleviate these circumstances. In 1997, $100 million was approved to refurbish Sybil Brand – a jail that had been closed due to the traumatizing conditions in which the women lived. Between 2006 to 2011 there have been several versions of a jail plan including the refurbishment of Sybil Brand, building of new barricks at the Pitchess Detention Center, and a $1.4 billion plan to rebuild Men’s Central Jail. Last Tuesday, the Supervisors approved a $2.3 billion plan for jail construction.

Given all of the shifts in leadership, in jail construction plans, in mandated jail reduction policies and in growing community pressure, is LA really committed to building new jails and high levels of incarceration?

The proposed $2.3 billion jail plan consists of the refurbishment of Mira Loma in Lancaster as a Gender Responsive Jail with over 1,600 beds for people in the women’s jail. It also includes a facility that will replace Men’s Central Jail called a Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility (CCTF) with around 3,900-4,900-beds, mostly for people with a mental health diagnosis.

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Fortunately, there is still time to stop the jails. The jail plan still has to cross a few more hurdles at the state level to receive funding. The women’s jail has not gone through a full Environmental Impact Process, and with the high amounts of valley fever in the Antelope Valley, it seems the impact of this disease on people might not be able to be mitigated. Further, LA has not received state funding for the CCTF. So either they will be looking for more state jail construction funding this coming budget cycle or they expect LA County residents to pay for this in the county budget.

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It’s not all bad. The Board of Supervisors has also committed to the creation of an Office of Diversion and Reentry to divert about 1,000 people from incarceration and create, in the next few years, about that many housing options for people coming out of lock-up. This is on top of the three new mental health clinics being built, and steady jail population reduction through Prop. 47, split sentencing, and a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the jail population by 15-20%. Additionally, Supervisor Hilda Solis has extended her commitment to an analysis of alternative treatment options outside of jail that can be funded or built up.

One thing that could be setting the sheriff’s department up for their continued push towards building jails is the increased amount of money going towards hiring more deputies. In this year’s budget alone there was $99.2 million added to the Sheriff’s Budget to address mental health needs in County jails, curb excess use of force at County jails, continue the creation of diversion through in custody treatment program, and address Americans with Disabilities Act compliance in County jails.

While this sounds good, most of the funding is going towards addition deputy positions resulting in hundreds of new positions for a total of 19,507 to be funded from the County General Fund. This is in the midst of people fighting for the minimum wage, lack of health care professionals, continued cases of police brutality, and our homeless population consistently increasing.

We know that the Sheriff’s Department will continue to push for the $2.3 billion jail plan. And we also know with continued pressure, a changing criminal justice landscape, and the fact that these jails would not be built until 10 years from now, there is still time. Time to push county leaders to move further towards investing money to expand community-based mental health services, re-entry support, adult education and drug rehab programs, instead of new jails.

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Diana Zuñiga
Californians United for a Responsible Budget