How America's Biggest Jail System Just Got Bigger

Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, on Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, on Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Two years ago, in an effort to ease overcrowding in California’s prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law that shifted the responsibility for many low-level, nonviolent offenders to the counties.

Almost immediately, the dangerously overcrowded state prison system grew less crowded. But as the prison population waned, county jails began filling up, leading some critics of the policy to argue that California had merely traded prison overcrowding for jail overcrowding.

Left with the burden of caring for thousands of additional lawbreakers, the counties faced a choice: Reduce the number of people in their crowded jails through treatment programs and other alternative means, or expand their own systems of incarceration.

This week, Los Angeles County chose the latter.

With roughly 20,000 inmates, Los Angeles County already has the biggest jail population in the United States -- about as big as New York’s and Miami’s combined.

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors agreed to a five-year, $75 million lease on an empty city jail in Taft, a remote town in the San Joaquin Valley. The county will begin sending busloads of inmates to the jail within months, freeing up more space in the other jails that it operates. The lease will allow county officials to lock up 500 more people altogether, bringing the county’s total number of inmates to as many as 22,000.

LA’s expansion of its jail system contrasts sharply with changes taking place across the country. In recent years, states from New York to Texas have lightened sentences for many low-level, nonviolent offenders, leading to lower rates of incarceration.

On the federal level, a bipartisan consensus is building for widespread prison reform. Libertarian Republicans like Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah) have joined Democrats like Attorney General Eric Holder in calling for changes to the “tough on crime” policies that caused prison populations to spike in past decades.

Supporters of the LA deal say the county needs more space to keep inmates locked up for longer portions of their sentences. In order to make room for new arrivals, the county often releases inmates from LA jails well before their terms have ended.

Some of these inmates have been charged with crimes as serious as “rape, child molestation, child abuse, kidnapping, mayhem, sex offenders who fail to register, carjacking,” County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said on Tuesday.

But opponents see the move as just another setback for criminal justice in a state that incarcerates more individuals than any other.

“It’s so disappointing,” said Lynne Lyman, the California director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group. “LA County has a third of the state’s criminal justice population. What we do in LA has a huge impact on the system.”

Advocates of prisoners’ rights hoped the county would respond to the growth of the county's jail population by investing more heavily in alternatives to incarceration, like substance-abuse treatment centers and the electronic monitoring of nonviolent inmates still awaiting trial.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of two members of the LA County Board of Supervisors who abstained from voting on the deal, implored his fellow supervisors to weigh those alternatives before they agreed to the contract.

“Prisons have their place –- there are people who are too violent and too dangerous to be among us -- but we also have to be clear about the large numbers of people with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues who we incarcerate,” he said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “The reason Los Angeles –- and California as a whole –- has a jail overcrowding problem is because we have defaulted to having a revolving door into the prison system instead of a one-way path to treatment.”

According to a 2011 study by the Vera Institute, even small reductions in the sentences of nonviolent, low-level offenders could dramatically change the space available in existing jails. The report notes that "small changes to the length of time these defendants spend in custody” could save LA county the equivalent of some 700 jail beds each year.

William Fujioka, the chief executive officer of LA county, said officials are still willing to consider some of these changes, but in the meantime, the 500 new beds are “critically needed,” he said.

David Sommers, a spokesperson for the County Board of Supervisors, called the lease a “stopgap measure” until the county comes up with the money to build more jails.

It’s not just LA county that’s looking for more space to incarcerate people. The state government is still trying to figure out how to lower the population density of its prisons, which remain overcrowded, despite the recent decline. This week, a federal court gave state officials until late January to come up with a permanent solution to the overcrowding crisis.

To the dismay of criminal justice advocates, this solution will almost certainly involve the further expansion of the prison system. Until Tuesday, the state was considering its own deal to lease the jail in Taft, and lawmakers are still pursuing contracts with other city jails and with private prisons.

On Thursday, at a hearing on criminal justice held by the Little Hoover Commission, a California watchdog agency, Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance denounced Brown’s 2011 reform as a “failed policy” and called LA’s jail expansion the “epitome” of that effort.

“LA County has yet to even attempt any real alternative to incarceration,” she said. “This should be the most urgent priority.”



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