Re-Imagining LA’s Jail System

Prison Cells
Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

Amidst the madness of the current news cycle, there are few changes that feel more silver-lined than the expansive criminal justice reforms currently taking place in the United States.  

There’s also no better place to watch these changes play out than in my new home of Los Angeles.

Like most American cities, LA is haunted by the legacy of racialized policing and lack of accountability in law enforcement. The more recent incidents of police violence across the U.S. are a painful reminder of how much remains the same in the twenty-seven years since Rodney King.

Los Angeles continues to search for answers to the problem of disparate outcomes and low accountability in its justice system. This city also happens to be home to the world’s largest jail system; county jails housed approximately sixteen thousand individuals daily as of December 2018.

Jails are strange places. They hold inherently transient populations and are designed to be a stopping point between brushes with the law and their legal repercussions. Yet they also hold sentenced inmates at times, serve as hospitals and mental health centers, and cost quite a lot to maintain.

With billions of dollars at stake in decisions to revamp LA’s jail system, public leaders and activists are working to envision a new future for the jails in LA.

The physical space is the first place to start on this road to reform. In response to outcry over crumbling and overcrowded facilities, the LA County Board of Supervisors has been creating a plan to replace, get rid of, or expand jail facilities. In LA, these facilities hold our most vulnerable residents; seventy percent of the jail population have diagnosed medical or mental health issues and a significant number come from or return to homelessness in the community. Jails are not just holding cells, but intervention points where we as a society sort and attend to the crises that face each individual who wound up there.

A powerful grassroots campaign, Justice LA, responded vehemently to the $2.2 billion dollar plan by begging the question of what kind of community resources those dollars could be used for instead. Mixing public art and fierce activism, the coalition-driven movement won some major successes.  This winter, the Board of Supervisors announced that it will tear down the “dungeon-like” Men’s Central Jail, allocating more resources to the creation of mental health facilities. Some will say that a jail is still a jail, but many considered it an encouraging move towards a more restorative vision.

Significant funding from the state is helping LA envision alternatives to jail that can keep people in the community while getting the services they need. Here in LA, that means diverting people into mental health facilities, inpatient substance abuse treatment and sober living centers, and providing early intervention in low-level crimes.

In one instance, the county recently made investments to adopt a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Los Angeles County, modeled after Seattle’s pioneering program that has seen so much success it’s been adopted by twenty other cities. This program is designed to reduce involvement in the justice system by individuals who conduct behavioral health motivated crimes, instead offering them, in lieu of arrest, an opportunity to participate in a harm reduction program and permanent supportive housing. In Seattle, the LEAD program has shown significant impacts on recidivism rates, housing, and employment for those who’ve gone through it. Given that it costs about eighty-one thousand dollars per year to incarcerate someone in California, this approach could even produce savings for the state in the long run.

Then comes the question of culture and leadership within the jail facilities.

The culture of violence towards inmates in the jails was previously so bad that the US Department of Justice intervened five years ago, a scandal that may send the former County Sheriff to prison. A lesser known fact about the Sheriff’s office is that its deputies are responsible for staffing the county’s jail facilities, in which many of the nine thousand deputies start out their law enforcement role.
Alex Villanueva, Los Angeles County’s newest Sheriff, won his race last November by positioning himself as a grassroots Democrat challenging the status quo. As he enters his first few months in office, Villanueva has not yet provided the shake-up his supporters were hoping for.

Whether Villanueva’s leadership will further improve the culture in LA’s jails, new policies may also come into play. Organizations like the ACLU and Black Lives Matter are working on a 2020 ballot initiative to give the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission an expanded role by granting it subpoena power. The coalition driving this effort,Reform LA Jails, is also asking for more diversion and alternatives to incarceration to further reduce LA’s jail population.

Regardless of what will drive the change, here in Los Angeles the combination of policy solutions and popular support seem to be turning the tide for our jail system.

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