There have been 29 deaths in Los Angeles County jails since the start of 2023, a result of the county’s ongoing failure to meet its commitments to build a functioning “care first” pretrial services entity and close the troubled Men’s Central Jail. The County Must Act
By Michelle Parris
The Vera Institute of Justice calls for immediate action to stop the ongoing and tragic loss of life in Los Angeles County jails. The county’s continued failure to address the issue puts incarcerated Angelenos in undeniable peril. In the course of only six days, three more people—one just 20 years old—have died in the decrepit and dangerous Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), a facility with conditions even county officials have called “unconscionable.” These losses bring 2023’s running death toll to 29, which may see this year on track to be the deadliest on record for the country’s largest jail system. The county Board of Supervisors (Board) made important promises in 2020 to offer care as a first matter and use jail as a last resort; that mantra needs to spur action in this moment of crisis.
The facility in which these men died should not even be in operation. The Board has agreed and stated its intent to close MCJ without a replacement. More than two years ago, the Board commissioned a report—created and endorsed by the Sheriff’s Department and the Office of Diversion and Reentry—on how to close Men’s Central Jail within two years. It is unacceptable that no actual plan has been adopted. The Board’s commitment to closing MCJ is further betrayed by the failure of the Jail Closure Implementation Team—created and funded by the Board—to publish a single progress report in more than a year, much less address the mounting death toll. This does not reflect a county serious about its commitment to close what it acknowledges is “consistently ranked among the ten worst facilities in the country.”
The responsible path forward is clear. The Board must acknowledge the emergency at hand, commit to a timeline for closing MCJ within the next two years, and adopt a decarceration plan for MCJ immediately.
Pretrial incarceration, including that of thousands of people with clear mental health needs, is driving the jail population. The Board must ensure its Justice, Care, and Opportunities Department immediately expedites the creation of supportive pretrial services—centering links to care and safely increasing releases instead of allowing people to languish needlessly in jail. The Board should also ensure its appointed CEO allocates significant money in the October supplemental budget—including any unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds—to advance the critical need to invest $110 million annually to countywide pretrial services and $237 million over a year to increase community-based mental health beds. These supports and investments will save lives, promote safety, decrease the jail population, and fulfill the decades-long goal of closing MCJ.
Michelle Parris is director of Vera California