Our View | Men’s Jail: 5 Supervisors, Just One Sensible Vote

By The Signal Editorial Board

Sometime in the next few years, when a mentally deranged person who should have been in the custody of law enforcement commits a horrific crime in Los Angeles County, you can blame the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

With one exception: Our valley’s representative, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who was the lone voice in the Board of Supervisors’ wilderness this past week when she cast the sole dissenting vote as the other four members of the board decided to abandon plans for a new mental health-focused custody facility to replace the aging, degraded, downright dangerous Men’s Central Jail.

The plan has been in the works for a dozen years, spanning more than 30 board motions and letters, and several studies to determine the best approach to keep communities safe while addressing the fact that an increasing percentage of inmates in the county Sheriff’s Department’s jails are classified as mentally ill. 

Yet, four supervisors — Hilda Solis, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl — voted to “kick the can down the road” and wait for yet another study, delaying the much-needed improvements to the county’s incarceration and inmate mental health treatment capabilities.

Only Barger voted no, preferring to proceed with the now-canceled plan — which had already gotten to the point of executing a design-build contract for McCarthy Builders Inc. to construct the 6,700-bed Mental Health Treatment Facility to replace Men’s Central Jail.

“Without a plan for replacing the outdated Men’s Central Jail facility, the county is choosing to maintain the status quo,” Barger said.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.”

Barger is right. 

The board’s timing is ironic, too, coming on the heels of several mass shootings across the nation in which the mental health of the perpetrators is at least one of the likely factors. We may not all agree on gun control, but we should all be able to agree on the importance of protecting the public from potentially dangerous people with mental illness, and treating those people rather than kicking them back out onto the streets, where they are, ironically, likely to contribute not only to the crime problem but also to the county’s growing homelessness problem.

The Department of Mental Health projects a 50% increase in the need for inmate mental health services in the next few years. Add to this the fact that only 20% of the county’s current jail population is considered “low risk” and, because of overcrowding, inmates typically only serve 10% of their sentences, and you have a Board of Supervisors that is flirting with disaster by continuing to study the issue to death rather than finally taking action after 12 years of pondering.

Aren’t these things supposed to be a priority for Los Angeles County?

James Wheeler thinks so. Wheeler, the vice president of ALADS — the union of the 8,000 L.A. County sheriff’s deputies — testified to the board that canceling the design-build contract is a dangerous mistake with consequences not only for mentally ill inmates, but also for custody deputies and the community at large.

“Our deputy sheriffs have worked for decades in custody facilities where conditions can only be described as deplorable for ALADS members and inmates alike,” Wheeler said. “Conditions at the Men’s Central Jail facility have been unsafe for as long as anyone can remember. The solution has always been to replace it with a 21st-century custody facility that will properly serve inmates, especially those with mental health needs.

“Canceling the design-build contract is a step backwards.”

Wheeler cited a study reporting that the county, which already houses 4,000 male and 1,000 female inmates with mental health issues, will need 6,700 beds for mental health inmates by 2025.

“Without the (Mental Health Treatment Center), and the custody mental health treatment beds it would provide, we expect severe overcrowding that would require the release of potentially violent, mentally ill inmates who would not have the benefit of treatment that may help their rehabilitation,” Wheeler said. “Your motion sends a message to your deputies that you are willing to accept options that we believe are not good for public safety.”

We thank Supervisor Barger for sticking to her guns on this issue. Twelve years of study has been enough to determine that the Mental Health Treatment Center is sorely needed, and the Men’s Central Jail has outlived its shelf life. 

If only the rest of the board shared Barger’s recognition that this is a poorly timed piece of procrastination — one that literally puts L.A. County residents’ lives at risk. 

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