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A huge victory in L.A. represents a shift in thinking about public safety

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors votes to cancel contract to build Mental Health Treatment Center in place of Men’s Central Jail

Patrisse CullorsDavid McNew/Getty Images

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

A movement against new jails had a monumental victory in Los Angeles yesterday. The County Board of Supervisors, in a 4-1 vote, canceled a $1.7 billion contract for the construction of a new Mental Health Treatment Center to be built on the site of LA’s decrepit Men’s Central Jail.

In a statement reported by Courthouse News, Supervisor Hilda Solis, one of the authors of the motion to cancel the contract, said that the county’s focus is a “care first, jail last” approach.

“Men’s Central Jail must be demolished, but we must replace it within a criminal justice system that includes a modern, decentralized countywide continuum of non-custody community-based care facilities,” she said. The board also ordered reports on the county’s health needs and alternatives to incarceration to aid in its decision about what will replace Men’s Central Jail.

The JusticeLA coalition, represented by more than 230 members at yesterday’s meeting, and its constituent organizations have long been critical of the plans to replace the Men’s Central  Jail with another jail-like facility.  When the plans for the Mental Health Treatment Center were approved in February, in a 3-2 vote by the supervisors, critics said it was simply jail by another name. They pointed to the impossibility of delivering quality mental health care in a 4,000-bed facility. And in a city of 10 million people, renowned for its traffic and its sprawl, they argued for the necessity of multiple, smaller facilities that could be sited across the city and more easily accessible.

That position had powerful support within the board and outside it. In June, the Los Angeles Times editorial board urged the county to move decisively away from plans to care for people with mental illness in a jail-like setting. The Times pointed out that “from the time that deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients began a half century ago, experts have called for community-based mental health care. As the mentally ill began to fill up jails instead, most law enforcement officials have agreed that they are more properly handled by doctors and other healthcare workers.”

An interim report to supervisors in June from an Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group said:

“The lack of community-based services and alternatives to incarceration in the County for people with mental health disorders has resulted in overburdened emergency rooms and jail towers full of people suffering from varying mental health symptoms. The delivery of mental health services in jail and other carceral settings exacerbates mental health disorders and oftentimes subjects people to additional trauma. The Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) acknowledges that people confined to the County Jail who have mental health disorders were failed by other systems, and that they would be safely and more effectively served in community-based settings at a lower cost to the County.”

In an interview in 2017, Patrisse Cullors, a Black Lives Matter co-founder and a leader of the JusticeLA coalition, spoke of the need to rethink public safety:

“We need to do an entire reimagining of public safety. What we have lived under is that public safety is a gun, a badge, a courthouse, and a jail cell—that’s what keeps us safe. What I would argue is that is what provides disorganization and chaos. What keeps us safe is when people have access to their human rights and human needs; when people can go home and know they can see their children; when people have a job that provides a living wage. I think we need to be asking new questions about this moment and what safety actually looks like.”

The question of what would replace Men’s Central Jail had been debated for years. As recently as 2015, the plan was for the construction of a new Men’s Central Jail, focused on people deemed “high security” and people with mental health, medical, and substance use treatment needs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In 2016, CNN reported that “according to the [Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department], the overall jail population decreased in 2015, while the mentally ill population was on the rise. Between 2009 and 2016, LASD reports seeing a 60 percent increase in its mentally ill population.”

Cullors has spoken about her own family’s experience. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last year, she recounted her brother Monte’s experience of mental illness and incarceration.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since my brother was first arrested and our family was stripped of our dignity,” Cullors wrote. “It is difficult for Monte to hold down a job. He has continued to struggle with mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder and has been in and out of psychiatric facilities. He served another prison term.”

“What might Monte’s—or John’s, or Juan’s—story be like had LA County invested in his rehabilitation instead of in jails and prisons?” she continued. “What if each of them had been given the opportunity to pay for their mistakes without paying with their health, their futures, and their lives in some cases?”

Yesterday’s vote and its effect is another reminder of the critical role of local government bodies in determining the course of criminal justice. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has long been a low-profile body of immense power. When Solis, a former state representative, U.S. congressional representative, and U.S. secretary of labor, won a race for an open seat on the board in 2014, the Washington Post reported: “Solis will serve roughly 2 million constituents, roughly three times the size of the congressional district she represented from 2001 to 2009. Overall, Los Angeles County is home to 10 million people, more residents than in all but seven states. And the powerful Board of Supervisors oversees a $26 billion budget, placing it roughly in the middle of the pack among states.” With the election of Solis and Kuehl, the board began a progressive shift, demonstrated in yesterday’s vote.

A member of the JusticeLA coalition told reporters yesterday: “We’ve witnessed today a huge shift, not just away from building new jails, but a shift in terms of how we view public safety. It seemed impossible for so long but today we’ve achieved the impossible.” Ivette Ale added: “We’re not just saying don’t build, we’re saying build this. Build community-based infrastructure that supports folks with mental health issues.”