LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted to establish a new office to advance the county’s call for a “Care First, Jails Last” system that would provide care and treatment instead of jail whenever possible.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored the motion, which immediately adopts more than two dozen recommendations by the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group [ATI) and directs the CEO to set up a team to oversee implementation. [View the ATI report here.]
Eunisses Hernandez, a member of the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group, 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.
“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 said. “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 said.
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.
“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.
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 suggest 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?”
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, said she spent more than 20 years behind bars because of drug addiction. Her father spent half his life in prison and her son is serving a life sentence.
“My hope is soaring,” Canales said. “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?”