(Ed’s Note: This story also appeared here in California County News, a content partner of Capitol Weekly.)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, at the center of California’s prison realignment, faces a perfect storm.
His county will handle more “realigned” prison inmates than any of California’s 57 other counties, who also are chafing at realignment. His department has been the target of critical official reports. A special commission was created to investigate jail brutality. Corruption scandals have emerged within the department, including favored treatment for celebrities. The ACLU filed suit over jail brutality and a recall petition is circulating. Last but not least, he’s up for re-election next year.
Despite the problems, Baca and even some critical observers are confident.
“He is not thinking of stepping down, he’s stepping up,” sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “This sheriff is not afraid of criticism. He uses it as a way to make his department better. And this department is the best it’s ever been.”
“They’ve got new management…they’ve reorganized the department, they’ve reorganized the custody operations, they’ve implemented or partially implemented the vast majority of our recommendations,” said Richard Drooyan, general counsel for the county’s Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. “So … I think the answer is yes, [the department] is still making progress.”
His political foes, and there are many, have a different take.
“I think there are changes happening in the [Los Angeles] county jails, and Baca always declares he’s the best person to educate people and to take care of people. But that’s simply not true,” said Mary Sutton of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group critical of the county’s correctional system.
Baca has been under fire for deputy abuses in the inner-workings of his jailhouses and is combatting the repercussions from the governor’s prison realignment plan. All this is happening as he gears up his effort to win a fifth term.
Los Angeles, with more than 18,800 inmates, has more in county custody than any other California county. After the Supreme Court ordered Gov. Brown to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent capacity, L.A. received an influx of 6,089 state prison inmates to serve the remainder of their sentences in its jails.
On Tuesday, Brown asked the Legislature to approve $315 million to provide additional space and avoid a mass release of state prisoners.
In Los Angeles, however, the shifts of state prisoners already have caused stresses.
Various departments and groups in the county have been grappling for a process to handle this new burden from the state.
The probation department, now overseeing low-level offenders who were serviced by the state parole board in the years pre-realignment, presented a plan this week to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to better address the new inmate population.
The plan included a new review team, encompassing the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the Police Chief’s Association, and the District Attorney’s Office and assembled by the probation department.
“When it comes to realignment…it’s been manageable, but a significant strain,” said Whitmore. “This will formalize each entity working together and meeting on a regular basis to go over individual cases, where everyone is involved.”
But the coordination between the county departments is pegged by the success or failure of each entity to address their part in the correctional system.
The LASD has been plagued in recent years with scandals and may be facing more upheaval within its leadership and the future of its infrastructure.
“We’ve got corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability — now the feds and [Department of Justice] are coming in. But there’s one underlying theme that transcends every one of those aspects, and that’s a lack of adequate and needed leadership,” said Bob Olmsted a candidate in next year’s election for county sheriff, against 15-year incumbent Baca.
Olmsted is a retired L.A. County sheriff’s commander who acted as a whistleblower on the problems in Men’s Central Jail, the county’s oldest facility at the center of the department’s recent controversy.
“I was Baca’s biggest advocate for the first seven to eight years he was in office. I loved the man he was good, he was proactive and aggressive and he really took charge and gave us some core values,” Olmsted said. “But the last five to six years he has been an abysmal failure.”
Allegations of inappropriate and potentially criminal behavior of deputies lead to the formation of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence to assess the situation in Los Angeles County.
The commission found significant failures in oversight under the administration of Sheriff Baca, but there may be signs of improvement since the report was issued last year.
“They’ve implemented 37 of the 60 recommendations and they have partially implemented another 11. So I think that’s pretty good progress at this point,” said Drooyan. “They’re working on the remaining ones and a lot of those that haven’t been implemented have some kind of funding component to them.”
Drooyan also praised the management under newly appointed Assistant Sheriff for Custody Terri McDonald, who previously served at the state’s department of corrections and rehabilitation as the point person for California’s realignment.
Another candidate in next year’s race against Baca is the sheriff’s former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.
Tanaka’s name appeared several times in the jail violence commission’s report, denounced for seeming to avert focus from the need to reform his jails.
At the time, Bob Olmsted informed the media of the department’s lack of oversight on deputies’ alleged out of line aggression toward inmates, after his superiors ignored him for two years.
“I don’t want to minimize allegations of inappropriate or potentially criminal behavior by any employee in any agency,” said Terri McDonald in an interview with the LA Times editorial board. “Having said that, there are a lot of [deputies] who are ethical, hardworking, brave and creative that I’m looking forward to working with and leading and helping them move the organization toward a better understanding of correctional science.”
Much of the LASD controversy was centered on the Men’s Central Jail, and the southern coastal county must also address how it will house inmates going forward now that this facility is prepped to be demolished.
“Our men’s facility is extremely outdated and has become a potential hazard to the safety of our inmates and our deputies,” Tanaka said in a statement. “I am in favor of suggestions to reconstruct a new facility in order to create a jail that is more modern and better fits the needs of our staff, our inmates and the members of our community. ”
“Jail construction is often times the less expensive part of having jails, the more expensive part over the years is running them,” said Peter Eliasberg, Legal Director for the ACLU of Southern California.
A plan recently presented to the Board of Supervisors to build a new facility in place of MCJ has an estimated construction cost that ranges up to $1.6 billion.
According to Eliasberg, the county should instead look at the ways to reduce its prison population by thousands. This includes raising the rate of split sentences—where a person fulfills up to half of their sentence outside of a facility—to the statewide average, releasing those inmates who are waiting trial and better addressing the mentally ill population.
“About 15 to 20 percent of people in any urban jail are mentally ill, that’s another big chunk of the population for whom we shouldn’t be building another jail,” said Eliasberg, who believes the mentally ill cannot be successfully rehabilitated in a jail setting.
“There are also a lot of people who are in the L.A. county jails who have not committed violent offenses and who aren’t violent people—who the only reason they’re there is because they can’t pony up the money [for bail],” Eliasberg said.
Pending how he addresses the department’s infrastructure needs and its quality of leadership, Sheriff Baca may be in a good position come next year’s election despite tension coming from every direction.
“He’s both popular and vulnerable,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. in an interview with the Times. “On the one hand, he’s a very skilled politician, very popular in many of the communities in the county and a known reformer and progressive. At the same time, he has tremendous flaws in managerial areas that have caused all kinds of headaches in the department.”