Yesterday's interesting L.A. Times editorial addresses the plan to build a new jail in Los Angeles, which prison activists have been resisting for a long time. When I visited Los Angeles at the ACLU of Southern California's invitation, our conversation about the plan was fraught with misunderstandings. The Sheriff's Office's position was that a new jail was necessary because conditions in the existing jail were horrific, particularly with regard to treatment for mentally ill inmates.
Can't argue with them on that point, of course; the County Jail is America's largest psychiatric ward. Indeed, recently the authorities have finally started to question the wisdom of jailing the mentally ill and come up with alternatives, but there's still a long way to go. There are some things that the jail gets right, such as when they properly use strategic segregation, as Sharon Dolovich explains here and here. But some of its effects are harmful and problematic, and the need for change is something we can all agree on.
But what sort of change? Yesterday's editorial posits the plan as follows:
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors spent the last decade putting off those questions. Then, in May, it adopted a $2-billion plan to demolish the complex and build a new 4,800-bed downtown jail designed around the clinical needs of the large number of inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems, as well as the security requirements of inmates who pose a high risk of harm to others. Also part of the plan is a 1,600-bed campus-like women's jail in Lancaster.
The supervisors chose the plan from among several presented by Vanir Construction Management Inc., a firm in the business of building such facilities. The price tag makes the construction project the most expensive in county history.
The updated design would certainly be an improvement over the current jail, yet it remains rooted in questionable estimates and bygone practices. It ignores the conclusions of a 2011 jail population study commissioned by the board, then for all practical purposes forgotten.
Rather than go with the spirit of Prop 47 and reduce incarceration, this plan may perpetuate the problem. The editorial goes on to say:
In pushing forward with a new jail that could keep as many people locked up as were, say, two years ago, the Board of Supervisors is in effect making an astounding policy statement: The current jail population is the correct one, despite the theoretical embrace of mental health diversion, the ability to authorize some no-bail, pretrial releases, and the recent reduction of sentences for some crimes. And the $2 billion — or perhaps twice that, when including bond interest — should all be spent on incarceration rather than more effective, and cost-effective, alternatives.
I tend to think of prison construction like road construction: traffic congestion increases with road development because it creates an incentive for more private vehicle transportation. This is why activists oppose the new plan. Let's solve the overcrowding problem by, well, not overcrowding the jail with people who are far better off treated in the community for their underlying mental health problems.