USE OF JAILS AS 'ASYLUMS' CRITICIZED REPORT: REFORMS URGED AS COUNTY CONSIDERS OVERHAUL.
As Los Angeles County supervisors consider a nearly $700 million plan to overhaul the jail system, a report set to be released today highlights a critical need to stop using the nation's jails as "asylums" to warehouse the homeless, mentally ill, addicted and those charged with immigration offenses.
The report by the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute finds communities are bearing the cost of a massive increase in the nation's jail population, which has nearly doubled in less than two decades.
"As other metropolitan areas have demonstrated, there are effective, strategic ways to reduce a jail population without compromising public safety," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
"Los Angeles County is on the right track by considering these approaches. Our county jail system should not be functioning as Los Angeles' largest mental health facility and homeless shelter."
Currently, only about 10 percent of the nearly 20,000 inmates in Los Angeles County jails have been sentenced. The rest are awaiting court appearances and trials or being held on behalf of the federal government for immigration offenses.
More than half of the people in jails are addicted to drugs and alcohol and about six in 10 suffer from mental illnesses.
"The county's jail plan is necessary, but it's not sufficient," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "The Justice Policy Institute report goes beyond it, which is how do we deal with a growing population of people in our county jails who really need other kinds of help other than incarceration, whether it's services for homeless people, those with mental health issues or substance abuse issues."
The report comes as the county last month released a plan to revamp the nation's largest jail system. As proposed, the dangerously overcrowded Men's Central Jail, known as the "largest jail in the Free World," would be torn down.
The Sybil Brand Institute would be demolished and a 1,024-bed replacement jail would be built at the Monterey Park site, while two 1,024-bed facilities would be built at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
The plan also calls for a 1,152-bed high-security jail to be built for men at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.
The JPI report discourages the building of more jails, finding that county jail populations nationwide have increased 21percent since 2001 while state prison populations have dropped 11percent.
In 2004, county governments spent $97 billion on criminal justice, including police, courts and jails, according to the report. The amount spent to finance jails leaped 500 percent from 1983 to 2002, rising from $3 billion to $18 billion.
"These counties just cannot afford to invest the bulk of their local public safety budget in jails, and we are beginning to see why -- the more a community relies on jails, the less it has to invest in education, employment and proven public safety strategies," said Nastassia Walsh, co-author of the report.