The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to create a plan to close the Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles.
KCAL 9 reports the supervisors are looking to find alternatives to the jail and plan to close it within the year. They're hoping its closure will be a step toward reshaping the community’s health and public safety.
“LA County is prioritizing our ‘care first, jails last’ approach to criminal justice to demonstrate our commitment to racial and economic justice,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said. “Closing Men’s Central Jail will restore dignity to our communities. People are not made whole locked up in a decrepit cell. We also recognize that many in our justice-involved population lack access to affordable housing and wraparound services.”
Closing the facility would come with the increased use of the Office of Diversion and Reentry, which was created five years ago to help those incarcerated with mental illness and substance abuse problems find housing and support systems, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Officials cited a study released in January which found that more than 60% of people who are incarcerated in county jails while diagnosed with a mental illness would be eligible for diversion if there were more services available to them. The LA Times reported that diversion programs could save hundreds of dollars a day for jails and end the cycle of homelessness and recidivism.
“We must reduce our reliance just on caging people,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who along with Solis introduced the motion, said. “The closure of MCJ, as we continue to do that, won’t be the revolutionary concept it looked like today. It’ll simply be logical. It’ll be fiscally prudent and another opportunity for community healing.”
The county and the sheriff’s department both agreed that the 57-year-old, run-down facility, which officials say is one of the worst in the country, is expensive to keep open and should be closed. A plan to replace the jail last year was denied by the county.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she supports learning more about alternatives but that she doesn’t support closing the jail, reports ABC 7.
Opponents of the motion worry that closing the jail will risk public safety.
“[They] are dangerous, dangerous offenders that will be released back into our communities. It's unacceptable," said Patricia Wenskunas, founder of Crime Survivors, an organization that supports crime victims and their families.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva also opposed the plan, echoing Wenskunas' sentiments.
“The jail system today houses 1,199 murder suspects, 762 attempted murder suspects, 65 manslaughter suspects, 105 rape suspects, 391 child molestation suspects, 1,200 robbery suspects, 142 carjacking suspects, 743 domestic violence suspects,” Villanueva told the supervisors. “Now, you tell me how safe you think you’re going to be with them out there in the community."
The plan does not call for the mass release of violent offenders, though. Supervisor Janice Hahn said the supervisors want to find a way to demolish the unsafe jail with another plan in place.
“On any given day there are over 3,000 individuals with mental illness in our jail system who could be safely diverted,” Hahn said. “We’re not closing it without a plan, it’s not our desire to release violent criminals into the streets, thus victimizing more people."
After the vote was announced, Villanueva tweeted his disapproval of the decision.
With the closure of Men’s Central Jail, the @LASDHQ will have less capacity to house @CountyofLA’s most violent offenders. In our custody today, we have thousands of serious criminal offenders. pic.twitter.com/tcYEqrqJIm
— Alex Villanueva (@LACoSheriff) July 7, 2020
Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy for Dignity and Power Now, likened Villanueva’s comments to fearmongering.
“We have an opportunity to take a much more comprehensive approach to public safety,” Steppling said.
The approved motion comes amid a board-approved budget cut proposal, which will defund the department by more than $150 million, according to ABC 7. Community members worry that the cuts will eliminate detective units such as the special victims' bureau.
"We understand there are budget cuts and budgets that have to be met. We understand that because we run a household, but we don't want to put at risk the rest of the community," said Richard Walker, the father of a murder victim.
The jail population has recently been reduced from 17,000 to 12,000 amid the coronavirus pandemic. This is the first time in at least 15 years that the population has dropped below the facility's 12,404 inmate capacity, despite crime dropping significantly.
The county chief executive officer must work with the sheriff’s department and other relevant entities to assess the potential savings from closing the jail, according to the motion. Officials will also determine where people currently in the jail would be moved and how the county’s six other jails would be impacted.