Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

County supervisors voted Tuesday — for the second time — to move ahead with construction of a 3,885-bed jail/treatment facility in downtown Los Angeles to replace the rundown Men’s Central Jail and a 1,604- bed women’s lockup in Lancaster.

The board’s Aug. 11 vote on the same matter was determined by many, including District Attorney Jackie Lacey, to be a violation of the Brown Act open meetings law. The original vote was tacked onto another agenda item about diversion, and Lacey and others argued that the public wasn’t given sufficient notice and opportunity to comment.

Despite comments Tuesday by roughly 70 people, the board’s vote came down the same way — a 3-1 split. Supervisor Hilda Solis, who had pushed for a smaller number of beds, abstained and Supervisor Don Knabe cast the dissenting vote.

Knabe said he agreed with Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who pressed the board to resize its plan for the downtown Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility to a flexible 3,900-4,900-bed plan.

Pointing to three sets of jail population projections, McDonnell warned that the board would “run the risk of making the proposed facility grossly insufficient by the time it opens.”

The CCTF is designed to house those in need of mental health and substance abuse treatment.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California told the board that the forecasts on which they were relying overestimate the future number of mentally ill inmates.

ACLU lawyer Peter Eliasberg said mentally ill inmates were historically under-counted, leading to an “illusory, non-existent rise” as more efforts were made to identity inmates suffering from mental illness. That “non- existent” trend was carried forward in consultants’ projections, Eliasberg said.

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley urged the board to build only one tower to replace Men’s Central and construct another facility in the town of Adelanto, in San Bernardino County.

That proposal drew fire from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who characterized it as driven by a profit motive.

“There will never be a vote from me for a private prison,” Kuehl said, adding that she would “not send (inmates) to remote prisons out in wherever the hell Adelanto is.”

Community activists have long opposed any new jail construction, arguing that diversion programs could eliminate the need for more jail cells and pushing the county to fund community-based treatment programs for the mentally ill and substance abusers.

“Any honest attempt (at diversion) will render any jails plan that is on the table obsolete,” Mary Sutton of LA No More Jails told the board.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed that “diversion is the right thing to do and puts taxpayers’ resources to much better use than incarceration.”

But Ridley-Thomas and each of his board colleagues have acknowledged that diversion, no matter how successful, will not eliminate the need for jails. Supervisor Michael Antonovich called the two elements “not competing, but complementary.”

Civil rights and community advocates pushed the board to reverse its decision to create a women’s jail on the site of the former Mira Loma Detention Center. They argued that locating women far away from their network of family and friends would only hurt communities and increase the likelihood that those women who commit more crimes.

“I want to say no to Mira Loma,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in California. “The research is in, and it shows that what works for women is access to families and services.”

Solis and Kuehl proposed establishing an advisory board to review the program model for the Mira Loma women’s jail and look at strategies to mitigate the impact of building a jail so far away from downtown Los Angeles, including transportation for visitors and videoconferencing. That recommendation was approved, and the board also reiterated its vote creating an Office of Diversion.

However, another proposal by Solis to focus on releasing inmates awaiting trial on low-level offenses and convene a Proposition 47 task force to help offenders reclassify their low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors was sent back to the drawing board.

Last month, the Justice Department and the county reached a settlement agreement on reforms in the identification, treatment and monitoring of mentally ill inmates.

Lacey, who led a task force on diversion, pointed to the board’s vote earlier this morning to pay out $1.6 million to the family of a 23-year-old LAPD detective’s son who committed suicide while locked in a cell at Men’s Central.

“These type of tragedies are not uncommon,” Lacey said. “I believe that these kind of tragedies are preventable.”

— Wire reports

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