Barger calls scrapping Men’s Central Jail plan a ‘step backward’

Supervisor Kathryn Barger was the only member on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to oppose the county’s plan for a new jail, calling it “a step backwards for public safety and treating the mentally ill.”

Barger cast the only dissenting vote against a motion co-authored by Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn to scrap the design-build contract for a state-of-the-art jail, saying it was a step backward in the county’s effort to replace the aging and obsolete Men’s Central Jail.

Supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of the plan to terminate the entire design-build agreement the county made with McCarthy Building Companies Inc. for the design and construction of the Mental Health Treatment Center.

Ridley-Thomas and Hahn said in their motion that more has to be done assessing the scope of the project and, specifically, that the original project scope for the Mental Health Treatment Center, as specified by the county and reflected in the design-build agreement with McCarthy Building Companies does not reflect the board’s present thinking, priorities and strategies.

Mental health need

Barger argued that there is an urgent need for a mental health facility made up of 6,700 beds.

“The contract terminated Tuesday was based on a study conducted by Health Management Associates and took into account ongoing activities in Los Angeles County to increase diversion and further the development of linkages with community services,” Barger said in a statement made in a news release issued late Tuesday afternoon.

“Even with these robust diversion efforts, HMA projected a need for a mental health facility consisting of 6,700 beds. With the rise we have seen since this study was commissioned, it is clear that we have exceeded those projections and are in need of a new facility.

“Without a plan for replacing the outdated Men’s Central Jail facility, the county is choosing to maintain the status quo,” she said. “One-third of the county’s jail population has mental illness. The Office of Diversion and Reentry has estimated that they can potentially divert 56% of those mentally ill based on their offenses and their prospective threat to public safety.”

No relief

“(Tuesday’s) decision does not provide any relief or support to our existing inmate population or the staff who work there,” Barger said. “The Office of Diversion and Reentry has done a good job of working with the justice partners to safely divert significant number of inmates from our county facilities. 

“However, based on the current and projected numbers, there is a need for additional capacity,” Barger said. “We have heard from our contract cities and from our crime survivor community that returning to the drawing board only kicks the can down the road for improvements to rehabilitation.” 

Over a decade and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to develop the jail plan that was rejected Tuesday.

A new plan will take another four to five years and cost taxpayers additional millions of dollars. Inmates in jail have a constitutional right to mental health services – and the new jail was designed to provide safe and effective programming space.  

The county’s top cop also voiced his concern over Tuesday’s decision.

LASD: ‘irresponsible’

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in a statement, also issued in a news release Tuesday: 

“The Board of Supervisors’ actions to cancel the McCarthy contract — the Mental Health Treatment Center design for Men’s Central Jail — is irresponsible because it would leave high-security inmates who are housed in single cells without a place to stay. 

“We agree to the movement, ‘Care first jail last.’ However, this also neglects our mental health inmates’ needs for appropriate treatment as required by law.”

Villanueva called the decision a public safety issue.

“Should something awful happen to a member of our community, it lies directly with the Board of Supervisors’ action taken today,” he said.

Part of the approved motion calls for the county’s chief executive officer and director of Public Works to report back to the board in the next 30 days, in writing, on the feasibility of demolishing the Men’s Central Jail.

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On Twitter @jamesarthurholt

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