By Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – A proposal to close Men’s Central Jail within one year drew fire today from residents worried about the public safety ramifications and cheers from advocates of diversion for people accused of low-level crimes or suffering from mental illness.

The board voted unanimously in favor of a proposal co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl directing an existing task force to map out what would be required to close an antiquated and dilapidated facility that even Sheriff Alex Villanueva called a dungeon.

The original vote was 4-0 because of technical problems that prevented Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas from answering a roll call. However, he later asked to be recorded as an aye vote.

Solis noted that the jail population countywide has been reduced by roughly 5,000 people, largely through efforts geared toward reducing the spread of COVID-19. That includes a zero bail schedule for low-level offenses, the release of many pretrial defendants and the early release of inmates with little time left to serve.

“We have made… tremendous progress,” Solis said. “This motion before us seeks to open up a serious and committed conversation about what it would take to close Men’s Central Jail in one year. The frequent reports back will… allow us to gain more insight into all the difficult and complicated pieces necessary to achieve the outcome that I believe all will strive for.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked that the task force led by the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Health Services’ Office of Diversion and Reentry seek input from local police chiefs. She also asked that the task force gather a long list of data on inmates to inform its decision, including age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental and medical health issues, crimes committed and eligibility for diversion.

Barger said she doubted that the county could get enough community-based resources up and running within a year to support the closure of Men’s Central and emphasized that services for high-need inmates were not available in other county jails.

“I don’t know that we can get to a level where we can close this facility without a replacement,” Barger said. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that not everyone can be diverted. Those who remain in custody are worthy of meaningful treatment.”

She said some statements about diversion were misleading.

“Diversion alone is not going to take away from the need to have a replacement facility,” Barger told her colleagues.

Most of the residents who were given an opportunity to speak during the one hour allowed for public comment were strongly opposed to closing the jail, though Solis said the vast majority of emailed comments to the board were in favor.

One resident opposed to closing Men’s Central said the board was too influenced by a small segment of county residents.

“I speak for the silent majority who are busy with their lives and also, in some cases, scared to speak out, but (who) very much care about their safety. But meanwhile, you are hearing mostly from the vocal minority… funded by special interests that would destroy our freedoms,” she told the board.

Many opponents demanded that another jail be built in place of Men’s Central and argued that closing the lockup would threaten public safety and remove a deterrent to crime. Some accused the supervisors of living in affluent communities where they could afford to ignore the safety issues.

“Unless you’ve figured out how to prevent people from disrespecting the law and committing crimes, do not close the Men’s Central Jail,” said Mark Hemstreet, CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce. “Our communities deserve to feel safe, and this is not how we achieve it.”

Villanueva was given six minutes to address the board on a host of issues.

“You heard quite a bit from the community,” the sheriff said. “They’re not very impressed with the idea.”

Villanueva recited government code sections that highlighted his authority over the jail system and said he had supported an earlier replacement for the unsafe downtown jail.

“We had a plan to actually demolish Men’s Central Jail and replace it with a facility that was smaller in size… you rejected it… you left us with the dungeon that we have today,” the sheriff said.

Villanueva shared the number of inmates in Men’s Central Jail facing various offenses, including nearly 1,200 men accused of murder by his count, and said that those who remained behind bars downtown represented a concentration of very dangerous individuals.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, who runs the county’s hospital system, including jail treatment programs, made clear that dangerous inmates would not be released.

“This motion is absolutely not about releasing dangerous, convicted criminals to the street… it is not suggesting that individuals not pay for their crimes,” Ghaly told the board. “Rather it is being focused on two things: first is our moral responsibility to care for inmates who do belong in jail in a facility that is safe and humane for the inmates and also for the staff… MCJ is not such a facility.”

The second focus is on diversion for those who do not belong in jail, many of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial, she said.

“Most are poor, most are individuals of color, they are victims of systemic racism and many have committed their alleged crimes as a result of untreated mental health and addiction,” Ghaly said. “It is not reasonable to expect that mental illness and addiction will get better in a jail.”

Tab Rhodes, president of the Police Peace Officers Association, called on the board to talk to rank-and-file deputies before making any final decision and highlighted the complexity of this undertaking.

“The need for a jail facility in the downtown area is a key factor in the local criminal justice system,” Rhodes said. “Men’s Central Jail is needed at this point to provide wraparound services that deal with rehabilitation not currently available at other remote jail facilities in the county, ease of visits… specific housing for high security concerns and centralized access to the downtown courts.”

The supervisors, and their predecessors, have long sought a solution to replace Men’s Central Jail and at one point last year seemed likely to approve a large-scale mental health jail in its place.

However, civil rights advocates pushed back, arguing that the county would continue to fail to provide adequate mental health treatment in such a setting. The board ultimately canceled a contract related to the new downtown center.

Since then, the supervisors seem to have been won over by proposals to invest in smaller, community-based mental health and substance abuse centers while expanding jail diversion programs to permanently reduce the jail population.

Proponents of closing the jail said it would free up tens of millions of dollars for community resources. The motion suggests that some of those savings could end up supporting the Sheriff’s Department.

“Closure of MCJ, with appropriate planning, would help to address budget shortfalls within the Sheriff’s Department while also allowing for additional funds to be redirected into building up the system of care,” the motion states.

That “system of care” would include more diversion programs as well as resources to help those released during the pandemic find a secure place in the community rather than committing new crimes.