The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has spent the better part of the last decade debating what to do when they close Men's Central Jail, an aging facility near Union Station that was once described by a federal judge as "not consistent with human values." The supervisors have argued over whether to build new jails to replace it or whether to refurbish existing ones and expand their capacity. Because they've failed to decide, Men's Central has remained open far longer than it should have.
Last year, for example, the board rightfully voted down a proposal by Sheriff Lee Baca and the county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, to spend $1.4 billion to build two new jails and refurbish a third, arguing that it wasn't clear whether such a plan would really address the county's needs.
On Tuesday, the supervisors tabled yet another proposal by Baca asking for $900 million for a new jail, and instead did what they should have done a long time ago. They voted to undertake a comprehensive study to determine exactly what the county's real jail needs will be going forward. The report will provide a baseline of information, including a profile of the existing inmate population, a "trend analysis" that projects the needs for bed space in the coming decade based on security classification, as well as a description of existing facilities and bed capacity.
Right now, amazingly enough, neither the supervisors nor Baca has a firm grasp on which inmates in the jails need to remain locked up and which ones pose no risk and can be released. Frankly, it's hard to imagine how the county can develop a rational jail plan without this information.
The report won't resolve all of the issues surrounding the jails. The courts will still have to sign off on alternatives to incarceration for low-level pre-trial detainees who pose no public safety risk but cannot make bail.
No one disputes that Men's Central Jail should be closed. But before the county decides to ask taxpayers to spend nearly $1 billion to build new jails, it should know exactly what it needs.