LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County supervisors are balking at a proposal from the county sheriff’s department to issue $1.4 billion of bonds to rebuild the 5,000-bed Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
The sheriff’s department describes the jail project as a means to address California’s ongoing corrections “realignment” that is shifting 30,000 prisoners to county jails from the state prison system over the next two years, while also alleviating security issues at the Men’s Central Jail.
The facility has been the subject of allegations involving sheriff’s deputies beating prisoners over the past year.
Sheriff’s department officials claim that the old-fashioned design of the 48-year-old facility, featuring long hallways, coupled with corrections officer layoffs, has created security problems at the facility, resulting in more instances of excessive force.
The more modern beehive design of the proposed jail would enable deputies to sit at a central location and be able to see into all the cells, eliminating the security issue and requiring fewer guards, said Roxanne Marquez, press deputy for County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
A jail violence commission formed by supervisors is investigating the allegations.
“The cost is an issue, but the bigger issue for the supervisor is the operation of the jail,” Marquez said. “She’s not entirely opposed to construction, but the issues involving jail operations need to be dealt with first. We have too many questionable uses of force.”
The project, which also adds 1,156 beds for female inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, is supposed to help the county deal with an expected influx of 8,000 prisoners from the state to Los Angeles County over the next two years.
But County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the jail construction project adds no additional beds to the system, which is part of the reason he opposes it.
“We have a total of 7,000 empty beds throughout the system. We have empty beds in all of our facilities,” Yaroslavsky said. “If we could mix and match the jail population with the facilities, it may reduce the number of beds we need. All of which is leading to the conclusion that a $1.4 billion replacement project is less than necessary. They presented us with a $1.4 billion plan with fewer beds, or nothing.”
A few weeks ago, supervisors asked William Fujioka, the county’s chief executive officer, to come up with alternatives.
Fujioka is scheduled to present a new report at next Tuesday’s meeting outlining those alternatives, including the cost of public-private partnerships, but Yaroslavsky said he expects the issue will be postponed until January.
In addition to public-private partnerships, the study will evaluate issues such as whether the number of prisoners can be reduced by using electronic monitoring devices on low-risk offenders or placing others in substance abuse facilities.
“I think the older one of the men’s jail facilities probably needs to be closed, but I don’t think we necessarily need to replace those beds if we can thin out the population in other ways,” Yaroslavsky said. “This is a 30- to 50-year decision and we ought to make sure we get it right. This is a rush to decision and a very expensive one.”
Supervisor Michael Antonovich agrees that the facility needs to be replaced, but he would like to see a proposal that achieves that at less cost to the taxpayer, said Anna Pembedjin, Antonovich’s justice deputy.
The sheriff’s jail financing proposal would double the $1.47 billion long-term debt load Los Angeles County reported on its most recent comprehensive annual financial report, for the year ending in June 2010.
The county’s last major jail project, the $337 million construction of the 4,100-bed Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles, was completed at the end of 1995, but did not open for another year because the county couldn’t come up with the operating costs needed to open it. The county issued $200 million of bonds to construct Twin Towers Jail.
“We simply can’t afford it with all the other demands the county has on its plate,” Yaroslavsky said. “Spending that kind of money on a jail would mean not having money for other county services as we pay off the bonds over the next 30 years — and just to get replacement beds.”
In January 2010, a three-judge federal appeals court panel ordered the state to reduce the inmate population in its 33 adult prisons to 137.5% of design capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the court’s decision in May 2011, which mandated the state lower its prison population by 30,000 inmates by June 27, 2013.
The solution state legislators came up with this year, realignment, is to have parole violators, many of whom serve 90-day sentences, and non-violent offenders serve time in county jails, rather than state prisons, said Dana Toyama, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. The legislation overturned a regulation that stipulated that only prisoners serving sentences of a year or less be sentenced to county facilities, Toyama said.
“So far it’s going okay,” said Mark Whitmore, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department. “We have 1,500 or 1,600 inmates that have come down. We have also experienced a seasonal drop in crime of 15% to 16%, so it has not been a problem. It’s resulted in an increase of 300.”
The county jail system has the capacity for 22,000 people but currently only has 15,800 prisoners, Whitmore said.
Toyama described the state’s plan as handling the issue through attrition, rather than releasing prisoners. Starting on Oct. 1, prisoners classified as non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders, or who fit the above requirements, have been sentenced to county jails.
No state prison inmates have been transferred to county jails or released early, she said.
“What makes anyone think Los Angeles County can afford to build a $1.4 billion jail program to accommodate state prisoners?” Yaroslavsky said. “This was supposed be a cost-neutral shift and it is turning out not to be. The state wanted to get this cost off their books and they placed it on ours.”
The state approved $7.2 billion of lease-revenue bonds in 2007 for prison construction, said Aaron Edwards, a fiscal and policy analyst in the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Of that number, $1.2 billion has been set aside for local jails. The first $600 million was awarded last year. The state has agreed to award the remainder to 30 counties, one of which is Los Angeles County, which is expected to receive $112 million.
The LAO’s take on any plans for prison construction on the state level is similar to Yaroslavsky’s.
In its infrastructure report, the LAO suggested that the state Legislature might want to reconsider spending money on prison construction until the impact of the prisoner reduction program can be determined, Edwards said.
“The state could have chosen to build its way out of this, but it opted for realignment instead,” he said.