Criminal justice advocates celebrated Tuesday and Sheriff Alex Villanueva warned of potentially deadly consequences as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel a $1.7 billion contract for a downtown mental health treatment center to replace Men’s Central Jail.
The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissenting.
Activists and Supervisor Hilda Solis assembled on the steps of the Kenneth Hall of Administration and more than 200 people signed up to speak to the board during a hearing that continued well into the afternoon. Many speakers wore orange T-shirts with the logo for JusticeLA, an umbrella coalition that has brought together advocates from a host of different nonprofits in a years-long campaign to divert funding from jail construction to community-based resources and services.
“We’re about to make history today,” Eunisses Hernandez of JusticeLA told the crowd outside. “Generations of our people have actually been at this fight for nearly a decade.”
Advocates have been effective in shifting the board’s attitude over time, leading the county in February to scrap plans for a women’s jail 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles at the former Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster. The county paid out $150,000 each to two construction companies that bid on that job.
Solis and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl co-wrote the motion to kill the $1.7 billion design-build contract with McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. for the mental health treatment center.
“It’s a rare and impactful moment, one that I’m seen only a few times before,” Kuehl said, pointing to “the meeting of a movement and election of progressive people to a board.”
Dignity & Power Now, the Youth Justice Coalition, Critical Resistance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Citizens United for a Responsible Budget and several other groups said the planned facility was just a jail masquerading as a hospital and have urged the board to build smaller treatment facilities scattered throughout the county.
“It’s time to do the right thing,” Solis said.
Solis said the board’s vision required a new set of experts ready to employ a health-centered approach.
“I don’t want to see people who are just used to building brick and mortar,” Solis said. “I want to see people who have a humanistic approach.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he supports diversion efforts and a “care first” model but told the board they were going too far in canceling the contract. He said that 75% of inmates are charged or convicted of a felony and more than 1,300 are facing murder charges, going on to list the numbers of those charged with other serious and violent crimes.
“When the claim is that you can divert 56% of the pop, I just don’t see how,” Villanueva said.
The sheriff told the story of a Marina del Rey man who was approved for diversion and probation but later stabbed his mother, nearly killing her.
Isaac Bryan, a researcher for the Million Dollar Hoods Project at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA was not swayed by the sheriff’s argument.
“We cannot and will not be moved to act in fear by iterations of a Willie Horton story,” Bryan told the board, referencing an ad campaign from the 1988 United States presidential race that featured a black man convicted of murder who raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while on furlough.
Barger said even if the county implements bail reform and an aggressive program to divert mentally ill individuals into community care, new jail capacity will still be needed. She accused her colleagues of just postponing the inevitable.
“I know that there are those out there that have a false narrative that by getting rid of Men’s Central Jail that there’s not going to be an increase anywhere. I guarantee you, there will be a need and this board will look at increasing capacity at one of our existing facilities. So for anybody out there that thinks `no more jails’ is in play, they are wrong,” Barger said.
During a June meeting on the county budget, following release of a draft plan from McCarthy that was not shared publicly, the board pulled back 75% of the funding for work to set the scope and cost of the mental health treatment jail. But the board stopped short of canceling its contract with McCarthy, allocating $30 million to the effort while continuing to evaluate its alternatives.
Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai had warned that not allocating any money to the project would put the county in breach of its commitment to McCarthy.
County counsel advised the board that it had the right to terminate the contract for convenience if the contract no longer suited its needs.
Multiple board members said the contract was tied to a particular approach that would not allow for a “care first” facility.
“We’ve had a profound change on this board, since 2015,” when the contract was signed, Solis said.
Though the vote to cancel the contract reflected a near consensus, the board did not seem to agree on what comes next.
And, following the vote, the board directed the director of public works to negotiate a final payment to McCarthy to cover termination costs, but those termination costs were not specified.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hahn brought a motion of their own, asking for a task force to synthesize a host of pending reports on jail reform and the replacement of Men’s Central Jail. The motion also called for reallocating funds to mental health care.
“While the board agrees that the MCJ facility is unacceptable, and must be demolished, the strategy for creating a new `Care First/Jail Last’ system is still not fully defined,” the motion reads.
Ridley-Thomas also proposed that the county address critical maintenance issues at the jail while reviewing its options.
Thousands of inmates remain in custody at the 1960s-era Men’s Central Jail, which Hahn called “an abomination.” Many live in cramped, dark cells set in long rows that make them difficult to monitor, creating an unsafe environment for both guards and inmates. Barger said in February that the facility was plagued by rats and amounts to “a time bomb waiting to go off.”
The vote in support of that second motion was 4-0, with Barger abstaining.
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