Activists who have long called for a ban on building new county jail cells rallied downtown in advance of the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote Tuesday for a “care first, jails last” plan.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored a motion to immediately adopt more than two dozen recommendations by the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group aimed at putting fewer people behind bars and investing instead in community-based treatment.
In what seemed symbolic, several organizations that have coalesced as JusticeLA met not on the rainy steps outside the Kenneth J. Hahn Hall of Administration but inside a large, well-equipped meeting room provided by the county.
Eunisses Hernandez, co-founder of La Defensa and a member of the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group that shaped the plan over the last year, was among those celebrating a shift in the way the county thinks about incarceration.
“This whole process has shown me that community can change the way that the bureaucratic system works,” Hernandez said. “The system is movable, it’s changeable, it can be transformed, but it requires significant relationship building that’s not transactional.”
The ATI report reflects consensus from a broad work group that included sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors alongside criminal justice reformers. It focuses on creating more community-based care for low-level offenders dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues.
Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas met with reporters Monday to preview the motion, which also directs the CEO to set up a team to oversee implementation.
“The jails … are really our de facto mental health facilities,” Kuehl said. “You can’t get well in a cell. They are not equipped to provide the treatment that people need.”
Community care is not only more humane, but more cost-effective, said Dr. Robert Ross, CEO and president of The California Endowment and the chair of the ATI Work Group.
“This report is in part … a moral statement about criminalizing hopelessness and criminalizing illness,” Ross told reporters Monday. “And it is clearly a strategic report … for the taxpayers of this county, it is cheaper to treat someone in a community than to treat them in a jail cell.”
Of the nearly 17,000 people in custody in Los Angeles County jails, the largest jail system in the nation, roughly 30% have a serious mental illness. Of those, 21% have a substance abuse problem, according to the report.
Ridley-Thomas said the report doesn’t shy away from highlighting racism in a system that disproportionately incarcerates black residents in particular.
“You can’t talk about this issue of incarceration, you can’t talk about the issue of homelessness and a whole range of other issues without coming to grips with the issue of racism head on,” Ridley-Thomas told reporters.
Though only 9% of county residents are black, blacks make up 29% of the jail population and nearly a third of the women’s jail population.
The plan focuses on several “intercept points” to keep people out of jail, ranging from someone’s first encounter with law enforcement to a hearing before a judge — suggesting new training, tactics and resources to change outcomes at each step.
For those who worry about safety, Peter Espinoza, a former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who runs the Office of Diversion & Reentry, cited an earlier study on diversion by the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank.
“This is not a strategy that is risky or a threat to public safety but in fact very much reduces the rate at which folks (commit new crimes),” Espinoza said.
The ATI work group envisions more “restorative villages” that provide behavioral health support for patients who otherwise end up cycling through crowded emergency rooms without any ongoing treatment plan or landing in jail. Such facilities are already planned at Los Angeles County-USC and Martin Luther King Jr. medical centers.
Since 2015, more than 4,600 people have been diverted from jail through the Office of Diversion & Reentry and other county programs. The report recommends scaling those efforts and adds new ideas.
An estimated 44% of jail inmates are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of any crime, so bail reform is another critical strategy in the plan to jail fewer residents.
The open question is how the new strategies will inform the board’s plans — currently on hold — to build a replacement for the downtown Men’s Central Jail. Last August, in the face of broad opposition, the board backed out of a contract to rebuild the decrepit and outdated facility and have since focused on trying to make critical repairs.
Kuehl said she couldn’t yet say how many fewer jail beds might be needed, but said, “I want there to be less jail beds and more treatment beds … it is safer for society to do it that way.”
The RAND study concluded that roughly 60% of the jail mental health population — which translates to about 18% of the total jail population — could be safely diverted into community centers. Bail reform and pretrial release would further boost those numbers.
Ridley-Thomas said the report re-frames the conversation about what to build and to what scale. He also implied that the decision on actual jail construction could be on hold for long after he leaves the board this December.
“It will be a very long time before we figure out how to build a quote unquote jail,” Ridley-Thomas said. “In the meantime, wisdom and excellent policy work suggests that there are other options that can be exercised that are more humane and more cost-effective, more fiscally prudent,” he said. “So why wouldn’t we do that rather than be stuck on old assumptions about what is necessary?”
At the Tuesday rally, Supervisor Hilda Solis promised, “We are not going to see a big, tremendous jail.”
Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California emphasized the board’s shift in attitude.
“Six, seven, eight years ago, the only discussion coming from the dais at the Board of Supervisors about how to improve the treatment of people with behaviorial health issues in the jails was to build a better jail,” Eliasberg said. “Now the conversation has completed changed … this can be a transformational document for L.A. County.”
Others pointed to a change in perspective outside the board room.
“It is clear that victory for Measure R means that there is a new priority and that priority is ending mass incarceration in L.A. County,” Les McNeal of Yes on R told the crowd, referencing the recently passed ballot measure calling for a new jails plan and subpoena power for a watchdog agency over the Sheriff’s Department.
While the details on implementing and funding the alternatives to jail across multiple county departments have yet to be worked out, at least one community member was overcome with emotion Monday at the possibilities.
Dolores Canales, community outreach director for The Bail Project and an advocate against solitary confinement, told reporters she spent more than 20 years behind bars because of a drug addiction. Her father spent half his life in prison and her son is serving a life sentence.
“My hope is soaring,” Canales told reporters. “Because I cannot help but wonder what would have been the trajectory of my life if something like this would had been in place. My son, (who) is doing life in prison right now — would it have been different if he didn’t grow up in a prison playground?”
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