Opinion: The L.A. County jails have had 26 deaths this year. When will it stop?

Tragedy struck again as a 29-year-old Black man died in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department custody last week. He is the 26th person to die in our jail system this year, putting us on track for a record number of in-custody deaths. Most of the dead were Black or Latino, had not been convicted of the charges for which they were being held and were in custody only because they were too poor to pay the bail amount for their release.

This is not how anyone would like to imagine the “justice” system working. The public’s understanding of policing and incarceration must catch up to overwhelming evidence that our criminal legal system exacerbates the crises it claims to solve.

Police contact hurts educational development and leads to lower rates of high school graduation and college enrollment. In Los Angeles, police killings caused nearly 2,000 Black and Latino students to leave school between 2002 and 2016. People who have been arrested are also less likely to vote, trust in government, have a bank account, be employed or get medical care when needed. Beyond the clear risk of death, just one day in jail can be so destabilizing to people’s housing and social supports that it makes rearrest more likely. And even common police practices like drug seizures, which some think save lives, are associated with increases in fatal overdoses. At every turn, the status quo is failing us, but we can change these policies.

As an advocate working for a nonprofit focused on implementing policies to end mass incarceration, I have invested countless hours in county workgroups pushing to end the use of jail for people experiencing poverty, homelessness and unmet treatment needs. We need instead to invest in community-based care — more housing, more access to treatment, more services that will prevent people from dying on our streets and in our jails.

County officials have made important promises to offer care first and use jail as a last resort, but mounting deaths are a crude reminder that actions — and outcomes — speak louder than words. The bureaucracy’s deep investment in incarceration is killing Angelenos and denying communities the necessary solutions.

For years now, residents have voted to check the sheriff’s authority, expanding the power of the civilian oversight commission and allowing the board to remove sheriffs who seriously violate public trust. Millions approved Measure J in 2020 to address racial injustice by earmarking local dollars for care and alternatives to incarceration — not law enforcement.

Yet last month, the county Board of Supervisors agreed, on the county CEO’s recommendation, to allocate around $5 billion to the sheriff’s and probation departments — two of the county’s “most troubled” agencies. County workgroups have concluded that we need at least $237 million a year for new mental health beds so that people are not forced to deteriorate in jail and return to the community further traumatized.

In recent litigation about jail overcrowding, the county bragged about allocating $79 million a year for three years to build mental health beds; the federal judge presiding, Dean Pregerson, noted that he was not impressed, given the $43-billion county budget and the magnitude of the need.

During the recent court date on jail overcrowding, Pregerson recalled the sense of urgency that saw the I-10 freeway rebuilt in short order after the Northridge earthquake, noting how much that same urgency could do to address the crisis in our jails.

We see overly complex county contracting and funding processes continue to hamstring and crush local service providers, which house and help people being released from jail while also ameliorating the crises that lead to incarceration in the first place. Yet to relieve traffic congestion, government agencies moved heaven and earth to rebuild — wielding incentives, penalties and waivers to prevent Angelenos from hearing bad news about traffic every six minutes on the radio.

A person’s life is more urgent than a traffic delay.

The county needs to remove bureaucratic hurdles to getting money out to communities in need — especially those most affected by incarceration — and right the wrongs of our budget priorities, fully funding a community-based pretrial-services system that centers connections to care and the mental health beds that are crucial to its success.

The poverty, incarceration and racial injustice causing deaths on the streets and in jails require that our elected officials and appointees, like the county CEO, put their money where their mouth is and find the will to act.

Michelle Parris is the director of Vera California, an initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice.


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