Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Plans for new Los Angeles jail frustrate criminal justice reform advocates

Plans for new Los Angeles jail frustrate criminal justice reform advocates


A planned jail expansion in Los Angeles has generated intense opposition and protest from civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations.

Last month, 100 protestors challenged the city Board of Supervisors to redirect funds earmarked for new locked facilities toward community services and other “alternatives to incarceration.”

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors first approved the plan to allocate $2 billion to build a 3,885-bed jail to replace the 5,276-bed Men’s Central Jail, located downtown, in 2015. The plan also calls for the construction of a 1,600-bed women’s facility to replace the current women’s lockup in Lynwood.

Critics maintain that there are far better ways to spend what they believe will ultimately be a $3.5 billion investment by the city in these proposed replacements.

“We can find $3.5 billion to build more jails, but we can’t find money for schools. We can find money for Olympics, but we can’t find money for parks,” said Greg Akili of Black Lives Matter, one of the groups leading the charge against the proposed expansion. “If you’ve got $3.5 billion, invest it in the people.”

Jayda Rasberry of the Los Angeles based grassroots group Dignity and Power Now agrees: “These beds represent trauma, torture, embarrassment, isolation, shame and death.”

Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell and District Attorney Jackie Lacey both support the proposed new facilities, arguing that they will lead to improved treatment of mentally ill inmates. Lacey told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that the replacement jail “will allow us to treat them more humanely, provide more resources for them.” Current estimates put the mentally ill population at approximately 20% of the 17,000 people incarcerated in Los Angeles.

Critics of the new facilities do not disagree that the Men’s Central Jail is old, decrepit, overcrowded, and long overdue for closing. But they question spending public money on another locked facility. Natalie Pifer, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Rhode Island, told In Justice Today that city officials should consider a “better way to care for the mentally ill,” one that is “done outside of the carceral setting.”

Moreover, Patrisse Cullors, a Los Angeles native and a founder of Black Lives Matter, argues that the city should impose a moratorium on all new jail construction until it has a better grasp on the impact of recent state-level criminal justice reforms. These include proposals to overhaul the bail system, re-classify some offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and early release measures — all of which will likely decrease the city’s overall incarcerated population.

“What we should be doing,” Cullors maintains, “is getting a clear understanding of who’s in our jails and investing in their health and well-being instead.”

Keramet Reiter, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of California, told In Justice Today that, in one respect, she believes the proposed jail represents an improvement because it houses fewer inmates than the old one.

“Any reduction of bed space is good,” she said.

But Reiter conceded that moving forward to build the jail would, in effect, bring to an abrupt halt the larger public discussion about city investment priorities.

“It will be a long time before we have this debate again,” Reiter said.

Cy Vance’s Double Standard

Wikimedia Commons, user Saffie 55

Cy Vance’s Double Standard


If you’re facing criminal charges in Manhattan, it appears you might be able to get out of that jam with the right campaign donations. And if you don’t have that kind of cash? Expect to face jail time and fines, even for the lowest-level offenses.

This is the transactional possibility suggested by a series of high-profile prosecutions Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance, Jr., has dropped in recent years. While powerful people in entertainment, real estate, and politics avoided prosecution, Vance’s office pursued thousands of charges for prostitution, loitering, and turnstile jumping, among other “quality of life” offenses. Not coincidentally, the people most likely to face those kinds of charges — low-income people, people of color, trans people, and immigrants, to name just some — are not likely to have well-connected attorneys and deep pockets.

This double-standard is at play in the thwarted investigation into Harvey Weinstein. The powerful Hollywood producer has now been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by multiple women in the entertainment industry, with more allegations still coming forward. One of those women, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, reported Weinstein to the NYPD in March 2015, and even volunteered to help them try to catch Weinstein on the record. You can hear that tape for yourself: not only does Weinstein admit to groping Battilana, he states he was “used to that.” And he continues to attempt to intimidate her, all while being recorded with NYPD listening in.

Even with the tape, Battilana’s account, and the NYPD’s own account, District Attorney Vance declined to prosecute.

In the same year Vance dropped the Weinstein case because — as his office now claims — the NYPD didn’t have enough evidence of criminal intent, the NYPD made arrests for 326 prostitution-related offenses in Manhattan, which also ended up in Vance’s office. A few of these were for “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” a charge usually used against women of color (cis and trans) on the street. A few more arrests were for “unauthorized practice of a profession,” typically a charge women in massage parlors face. Most charges were for prostitution.

Some of these prostitution charges are likely the result of sting operations where police pose as customers, deceiving their targets into agreeing to or actually having sexual contact with them. Some officers, like Officer Michael Golden, have repeatedly had sex with the women they arrested. This conduct is not permitted, but Vance’s office declined to prosecute Golden for multiple sexual encounters with women in prostitution investigations.

In a typical prostitution case, it is the officer’s word prosecutors rely on. They continue to use preprinted forms that prompt the arresting officer to document the attire the accused was wearing, or if the neighborhood they were in was an area known for prostitution — by which they mean, an area where police repeatedly arrest people for prostitution. For example, in Manhattan, sex is probably being sold at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, which is where the NYPD caught Weinstein on tape in his own attempt at quid pro quowith an actress. But that’s not policed the same way as Hell’s Kitchen is, the fifth most-policed neighborhood for loitering-for-prostitution of all five boroughs.

What New Yorkers charged with quality of life offenses lack is what Weinstein had when facing potentially far more serious charges: the power to get out of it. Most New Yorkers aren’t the son of former police commissioners, like Greg Kelly, who was accused of sexual assault in 2012, and who Vance chose not to prosecute. In that case, as in the allegations against Weinstein that Ambra Battilana Gutierrez brought to the NYPD in 2015, it was the woman who told police she was assaulted who ended up smeared in the press.

There’s another apparent factor in who Vance chooses to prosecute: campaign contributions. Not long after Vance dropped the Weinstein investigation, he received a $10,000 donation from Weinstein’s lawyer. Vance’s communications director says the lawyer, David Boies, wasn’t representing Weinstein in the 2015 criminal case. However, Boies was a major Vance donor. Between Boies, his son, and his partners, Vance received $182,000 in donations, according to the International Business Times.

All this has prompted reporters and political observers to ask questions about what looks like Vance’s pay-for-play, which appears even stranger given that Vance is currently running unopposed for his third term as Manhattan District Attorney. Democrat Vance has also taken donations from Marc Kasowitz, an attorney for the Trump organization. In 2012, Vance’s staff say they had a strong felony fraud case against Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump. But after a visit from Kasowitz, Vance overruled his staff, and the investigation was dropped. Vance says he has returned these funds. But overall, Kasowitz contributed $50,000 to Vance.

On balance, these might seem like small political donations. But the women accused of selling sex in Midtown hotels and on Hell’s Kitchen streets are probably not in the habit of, nor have the ability to make, such contributions. In and out of the revolving door of prosecution they, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, remain.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

More in Explainers

Salt Lake County DA under fire after finding fatal shooting by police justified

YouTube

Salt Lake County DA under fire after finding fatal shooting by police justified


Salt Lake County, Utah residents are experiencing déjà vu. Their District Attorney, Sim Gill, announced last week that he would not bring charges against the police officer who fatally shot Patrick Harmon in the back. The announcement comes just over a year after Gill declined to bring chargesagainst the officer who shot then 17-year-old Abdi Mohamed, a choice that attracted outrage from some community members. On Sunday, roughly 150 people gathered to protest his latest decision.

“[Gill] is not going to justify one more murder in this city, is he?” Lex Scott, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, asked the crowd. “We’re coming for your job, Sim. We’re coming for justice, Sim.”

Harmon, a 50-year-old black man, was stopped by police on August 13th while riding his bicycle. Police told Harmon they stopped him because he didn’t have a red rear taillight on his bike, and moved to handcuff him after learning of multiple open felony warrants for his arrest, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Harmon allegedly pled with the officers not to take him to jail, then broke into a run.

Footage from three body cameras released last week shows what appears to be Officer Clinton Fox shooting Harmon in the back at close range after Fox yells “I’ll f — -ing shoot you.” Fox contends that at some point Harmon turned back toward him and pointed a knife. (A knife was recovered at the scene, according to Gill.)

“Officer Fox said that in 10 years of law enforcement and two military deployments, it was the scariest situation he had ever been in,” reads part of the DA’s report finding the shooting was legally justified.

On Tuesday afternoon, two days after community members called for his resignation, Gill announced that he had asked the FBI to review the incidentand his office’s finding that deadly force was justified, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. In a letter to the FBI obtained by the paper, Gill explained that “given the seriousness of the case and the considerable public interest in the matter, all issues must be completely examined to preserve the public’s trust in the criminal justice system and ensure the right measures are taken in this case.”

In June, Gill’s name appeared alongside other district and county attorneys in the state on an editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune entitled: “Utah prosecutors need no additional oversight.” The op-ed argues that the term “prosecutorial misconduct” is “cliché” and “misleading,” and notes that “creating new disciplinary committees and regulations to further constrain all prosecutors will not serve the public good.”

Protesters who rallied outside the city’s Public Safety Building on Sunday called for Gill to resign, and for body camera footage to be released within 24 hours of all police-involved shootings. Failing to charge Fox is seen by the groups protesting as part of a broader pattern in which police aren’t held accountable by Gill’s office.

Frustration over that lack of accountability is heightened by what groups like Utah Against Police Brutality and the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter say is clear racial discrimination. In Utah, black residents comprise just 0.7 percent of the population, but 9.3 percent of the state’s adult prison population. Latino and Native American residents are also overrepresented in the state’s prisons and jails.

Harmon’s niece, Alisha Shaw, told The Guardian that her uncle’s death was clearly the result of racial profiling.

“Why do we have to fight so hard for justice?” Shaw asked. “All we want is to be treated equal as a black person instead of being profiled and looked at as if we were a threat.”

Utah Against Police Brutality has organized a sit-in at Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office on October 17th before a City Council meeting to demand “a new ordinance to make sure that cops cannot withhold body cam footage from the public.”

More in Podcasts