LOS ANGELES — Dozens of protesters rallied in downtown Sept. 26 to urge the Board of Supervisors not to spend money on new jail construction, blocking a major thoroughfare and bringing traffic in the Civic Center area to a crawl.
Justice LA, a coalition of more than 40 community organizations, aimed to “send a message that we are ready and prepared to disrupt business as usual in Los Angeles” in order to reduce the number of people being held in county jails, Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now told the board.
Advocates for criminal justice reform, dressed in orange T-shirts reading “I am not the property of L.A. County jail,” set up bunk beds in the middle of Temple Street — which was closed between Grand Avenue and Hill Street — to simulate a jail setting. Rallying in front of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration as the board met inside, they shouted “No more jails!” and speakers called for a moratorium on new jail construction.
“We built 100 jail beds … to really bring what’s private to the public,” Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and Dignity and Power Now, told City News Service.
Cullors urged that funds earmarked for jails be spent on homelessness, education and programs to lift communities out of poverty, saying county officials have “historically divested from poor communities … and invested in us being inside these beds.”
The county has plans to build a 3,885-bed jail/treatment facility in downtown Los Angeles to replace the rundown Men’s Central Jail and a 1,604-bed women’s lockup in Lancaster. The Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility carries a price tag of about $2.2 billion, while converting the Mira Loma detention center in Lancaster to a women’s jail is estimated to cost $137 million.
Activists say forecasts used by the county overestimate the need for jail beds.
In 2015, before approving plans for the downtown and Lancaster jail facilities, the board hotly debated the number of beds that should be included.
Supervisor Hilda Solis pressed for a lower number of jail beds and abstained from the final vote, while then-Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich joined Sheriff Jim McDonnell in arguing for even more beds than were ultimately included.
As of Sept. 26, there were 17,460 inmates in county jails, which have a state-rated capacity of 12,537, according to a count provided by the Sheriff’s Department, which manages overcrowding by releasing offenders who are sentenced to a year or less behind bars after they’ve served 10 percent of their term.
Justice LA called for a working group to look at how new laws — including those that reduce criminal penalties, allow early release for non-violent crimes and fund the fight against homelessness — will affect the future demand for jail beds. The group urged the county to work toward cutting the jail population in half by 2022.
The group submitted a draft motion to the board asking that a moratorium on jail construction be put in place until the county can “fully implement the promise of Prop. 47, Prop. 57, Measure H” and other voter-driven reforms, Cullors said.
She and other advocates pointed to New York City as an example of what can be accomplished. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has plans to cut the city’s jail population in half and close Rikers Island, using bail reform as one key tool.
“We ask that Los Angeles push a path of redemption, reconciliation, reimagination and reinvention,” said Alberto Retana, CEO of Community Coalition, asking the board to focus on the root causes of incarceration.
A sheriff’s spokeswoman said the number of beds needed was not expected to decline, as any drop would cause the department to scale back its policy of early release.
“We release inmates before completion of their court-ordered sentence when our inmate population exceeds our ability to properly [or] safely house them,” Nicole Nishida said in an email to CNS. “We will not see a reduction in our population as a result of Prop. 47 [or] 57, etc., because if [and] when our population decreases, we will raise the percentage of time being served, and the beds will remained filled.”
Both sides say they are aiming to help mentally ill inmates, who make up roughly one-quarter of the total jail population. The terms of a county legal settlement with federal officials mandates that more be done to prevent jail suicides and the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates.
Providing the appropriate mental health treatment requires building a state-of-the-art facility, like the one proposed to replace Men’s Central, say McDonnell and other county officials.
But opponents say adequate treatment cannot be offered in a jail environment and mentally ill inmates should be diverted to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
“We know that you cannot get well in a cell,” Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition told the board, asking supervisors “to invest in something beyond mass incarceration for black and brown people in L.A. County.”
The board approved a number of additions to its annual budget as those who had rallied outside waited inside for their turn at a microphone. There were no agenda items specifically related to the jails.
“We are often not on their agenda,” Cullors said when asked why Justice LA turned out.