The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to set up a team to implement the long-promised closure of Men’s Central Jail.
Supervisors Hilda Solis said it was time to stop studying the issue and take action, co-authoring a motion finding that the decrepit downtown lockup must be demolished and that no replacement jail is needed.
“We have long talked about why we need to close this jail. The jail has been tainted by mismanagement, corruption (and) mistreatment of people incarcerated in its cells,” Solis said.
Solis — who championed a vote last July to close the jail within a year — said multiple studies, including a March 2021 report by the MCJ Closure Workgroup, provide the necessary roadmap.
The workgroup’s report estimates that it will take 18-24 months to close the jail. It envisions redistributing some of the inmate population across other correctional facilities over time, while also releasing about 4,500 people currently behind bars to residential programs or into community treatment.
“We have identified … all we need to close MCJ,” Solis said. “It’s high time we roll up our sleeves and get it done.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who cast the dissenting vote, pushed back against the idea that it was time to act, warning that the county doesn’t have enough community treatment resources in place to accommodate vulnerable inmates suffering from mental illness or battling addiction.
Barger said the county had to return $6 million in state funding earmarked for such community programs because it hadn’t found a way to deploy the money.
“If we cannot spend money being handed to us for these services, how can we expect to build up the beds needed?,” Barger said. “For the last five years, we’ve been saying we’re going to build 4,000 more beds and yet we haven’t. How are we going to do this in the next 24 months?”
Barger warned that the county might be forced by federal authorities to build a new jail against the board’s will and predicted that the Department of Justice would be critical of the supervisors’ decision.
She offered an amendment calling for a report back in 60 days, suggesting that a team come up with a timeline for building community capacity before any board vote on the closure.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who co-authored the closure motion, said she appreciated Barger’s sentiment, but feared the proposed amendment would simply slow the inevitable process of shutting down Men’s Central Jail.
“We’re ready now in a way we’ve never been before,” Kuehl said.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva also warned the board against moving forward with the plan.
“Releasing 4,500 inmates onto the streets is not a legal option for the county … and trying to cram 12,500 inmates into 8,500 beds is … unconstitutional,” Villanueva said.
Supporters of closing the jail argue that the inmate population can be reduced dramatically by releasing people awaiting trial for non-violent crimes and treating those suffering from mental illness in a community setting. Many point to the dramatic reduction in the jail population accomplished during the height of the coronavirus pandemic as proof of this possibility.
Supervisor Janice Hahn also reminded the board that more than 3,000 inmates currently in county jails are being held there due to a pandemic-related moratorium on transfers to state prisons.
The sheriff, who has long had an antagonistic relationship with the board, asserted his authority.
“Government code section 22605 clearly states that the sheriff runs the county jail, and I have full intention to carry out my mandate,” he said.