For over a decade now, Los Angeles has debated the fate of Men’s Central Jail, a massive, outdated facility located in the county detention complex near downtown. When it began, the debate was about how to replace Men’s Central Jail with a modern correctional facility. Over the years, though, progressives, animated by “defund” ideology, have shifted the focus to closing Men’s Central without a replacement, which would shrink county jail capacity by about one-quarter. A local movement known as “Care First, Jails Last” calls for transferring responsibility for large numbers of criminal offenders from jails to community-based social programs. Proponents claim that this would benefit, above all, mentally ill inmates, whose needs have been a top priority of the Men’s Central Jail debate all along.
In 2019, the County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel a contract to build a mental-health-oriented correctional facility to replace Men’s Central. That plan would have provided a much higher and more humane level of care for mentally ill inmates than L.A. County can currently offer. But progressives argued that the funds would be better spent on “alternatives to incarceration.” Since that vote, serious crime has risen in L.A., and concerns over jail conditions, a chronic problem, have run high. But county officials remain firmly committed to Care First, Jails Last.
Progressives have used the heightened sensitivity to mental illness to advance the idea that jail inmates are the truly vulnerable parties in public-safety policymaking and to frame the jail debate as more about health care than public safety. The argument goes as follows: mentally ill offenders wind up in jail because they’re sick, and since they “can’t get well in a cell,” they should be released on moral and health-science grounds. In the words of the controversial cofounder of Black Lives Matter, L.A. activist Patrisse Cullors: “It’s a no brainer that people with mental illness shouldn’t be in jail in Los Angeles County.”
Anyone with a sense of decency should find the high rate of mental illness among L.A. County jail inmates shocking. But it does not follow that one must therefore endorse the abolitionist agenda. Proponents of Care First, Jails Last call for diverting thousands of mentally ill felons out of jail into the care of the local mental-health system that failed to stabilize them in the first place, leading to their offending. Progressive policies risk more unsafe communities and a deterioration in jail conditions, neither of which will help the seriously mentally ill. Investing in social programs dedicated to preventing the seriously mentally ill from offending and re-offending is important, but it should not come at the expense of a new modern, secured facility. Replacing Men’s Central is the greatest need of L.A. County’s corrections system; it is also the policy option that local progressives most strongly oppose.
One of seven jails run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Men’s Central, on an average day, holds about 3,400 inmates, one-quarter of everyone in custody. Close to 40 percent of high-security county inmates are held at Men’s Central Jail. Systemwide, 70 percent of all inmates are held at least partly on a pretrial basis (some, or all, of their charges have not been fully adjudicated). Among L.A. County’s sentenced and un-sentenced populations, the most serious charges faced by inmates are generally felonies; misdemeanors account for less than 10 percent.
About 40 percent of county inmates are considered part of the “mental-health population.” Some are confined at Men’s Central, though most, and most of those with serious mental illness, are in custody at the neighboring Twin Towers Correctional Facility. County government reckons that the share of inmates with a mental disorder has more than doubled since 2009. In 2022 alone, inmates requiring High Observation Housing—the most acute level of psychiatric need—grew by almost 50 percent.
Throughout most of its modern history, the L.A. County jail system was in expansion mode. Men’s Central opened in 1963 and received a major addition in the 1970s. The county jail census surged in the wake of the post-1960s crime wave. During the Rodney King riots, it exceeded 25,000. To address the then-severely overcrowded jail conditions, L.A. opened Twin Towers, now the system’s largest jail, in the mid-1990s.
In 2007, Sheriff Lee Baca and the ACLU jointly endorsed the idea of building a more modern jail to replace Men’s Central. Discussion during this period focused on increased investment in alternatives to incarceration that would divert inmates into community-based social programs and thereby ease jail demand. A 2013 consultant report, which recommended the demolition of Men’s Central, enumerated many deficiencies with the facility, including “[l]inear design that does not accommodate constant visual supervision to maintain officer and inmate safety . . . [i]nadequate dayroom area and outdoor recreation area and opportunities . . . [d]eteriorating physical condition including all major building systems.”
But while supporting the construction of a newer, more humane jail began the 2010s as the progressive position, it ended that decade as the conservative one. Corrections policy in Southern California, like all other debates over public safety, has been pushed leftward by progressive advocates. Their victories have included the passage in 2014 of Proposition 47, a change in state law that downgraded many felonies to misdemeanors and is often blamed for California’s ongoing retail-theft epidemic, and the election of progressive prosecutors such as current Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón in 2020. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Black Lives Matter spawned from the Men’s Central Jail debate. Patrisse Cullors got involved in criminal-justice reform because of her brother Monte, a seriously mentally ill man with extensive involvement with the county jails.
Progressive Democrats Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, both elected to the county Board of Supervisors in 2014, have led Los Angeles’s jail-abolition movement. The board has only five members. Two can play an outsize role, particularly when backed, as Solis and Kuehl were throughout the latter 2010s, by a highly organized network of activists.
The crucial move came in August 2019. By a four-to-one vote, the board canceled the contract for a locked medical facility, then known as the Mental Health Treatment Center, which years of planning had developed as a replacement for Men’s Central Jail.
Since then, three major developments have occurred. First, Covid-19 hit. Jail bookings dropped precipitously, leading to an inmate census reduction that activists claimed proved that L.A. had more jail capacity than it needed (though crime is up since then). Then, in November 2022, Sheriff Alex Villanueva was voted out of office. Villanueva stood out as an increasingly lonely voice in favor of the original idea of replacing Men’s Central Jail with another custodial facility. Finally, in that same election, county voters passed Measure A, which authorized the Board of Supervisors to remove the (independently elected) sheriff “for cause.” Perhaps cognizant of the threat posed to his job by the progressive board’s power grab, Villanueva’s replacement, Robert Luna, has taken a more deferential attitude, including on jail closure.
From the perspective of some local Democrats, however justified jail expansion may have been in times past, Angelenos live now in a different, safer era, making jail contraction the more appropriate goal. Progressives see cutting jail capacity by one-fourth as doable, given that, as of 2021, violent crime was down two-thirds from its early 1990s peak. Recent numbers, however, belie the supposition that crime won’t come back. In 2019, the year the Board of Supervisors voted to cancel the contract for Men’s Central’s replacement, there were 253 murders in the City of Los Angeles. Last year, there were 382. Shooting victims rose from 945 to 1,330 during that span.
While crime should be the primary factor that a community weighs when assessing how much it should invest in jails, a close second is jail conditions. When Men’s Central first opened, government did not envision the raft of health, social, and recreational programming that many now consider essential for a modern correctional institution. Programming allows jail staff to design incentives for inmate behavior; done well, it can bring rehabilitative and therapeutic benefits, and even when mediocre, it can help maintain order by occupying inmates’ otherwise idle hours. Just over the past decade, the average length of stay in L.A.’s jails more than doubled, to 115 days: this fact alone demands more attention to programming.
When Men’s Central first opened, state psychiatric hospitals had the lead responsibility for the seriously mentally ill. Over the last decades of the twentieth century, that system was drastically downsized, and newer community-based mental-health programs failed to replace it. Many mentally ill Angelenos who would have been confined to a state asylum became the responsibility of county correctional facilities. That process, sometimes referred to as “trans-institutionalization,” necessitated investment in jail-based mental-health programs. In the early 1990s, Men’s Central was sometimes referred to as the “largest mental institution in the United States”; now, Twin Towers holds that dubious distinction.
Litigation supported by L.A. progressives raised standards for jail conditions. In 2015, county government entered a consent decree with the federal Department of Justice over a two-decade-old investigation into the jail system’s “constitutionally deficient mental health care for prisoners.” That settlement installed an independent monitor to report on the county’s compliance with various requirements meant to improve conditions for mentally ill inmates. Eight years after signing the consent decree, L.A. County remains out of compliance with it, falling short in providing the mentally ill with timely access to specialized housing and appropriate amounts of out-of-cell time.
Critics of the plan to close Men’s Central without a replacement have relentlessly stressed the county’s persistent failures to honor the commitment it made, through the consent decree, to improve jail conditions for mentally ill inmates. In September 2022, Joseph Charney, a former deputy district attorney and criminal-justice deputy to an L.A. County supervisor, testified at a board hearing that “Care First, Jails Last . . . will do nothing to secure constitutional care for seriously mentally ill inmates residing in county jails. . . . It has been apparent for years that the only way to comply with the decree, and enable the county to close M.C.J., is by replacing it with an adequate mental health custodial facility.”
The original plan for replacing Men’s Central was equally a plan to replace Twin Towers as the system’s main mental-health facility. Twin Towers has an octagonal, pod-style layout, better for observation than Men’s Central, with its long, horizontal rows of cells. That linear design leads to inefficient use of jail deputies, a particularly vexing problem for the Sheriff’s Department, in which staffing levels run below those of peer systems. From a mental-health viewpoint, Twin Towers still falls short in several ways, including lack of sufficient private areas for inmate consultations with mental-health professionals.
The Mental Health Treatment Center plan represented a $2 billion commitment to make good with the consent decree’s terms. But progressives nixed it, putting all their faith in diversion programs. The Board of Supervisors has commissioned several reports that it believes prove the soundness of diverting mentally ill offenders into community-based alternatives to incarceration. But the Care First, Jails Last literature proves far less than the board claims, for it deals in hypotheticals. No one can truly know that L.A. County’s health and human services systems can cope with thousands of serious and repeat offenders. The literature does, though, reveal one key detail about the conditions for Care First, Jails Last: there’s no way to close Men’s Central Jail without a replacement and not release large numbers of mentally ill felons.
Though L.A. County’s seriously mentally ill inmates are mostly in custody in Twin Towers, not Men’s Central Jail, closing Men’s Central without a replacement will require mass releases from other facilities, including Twin Towers. Men’s Central is now host to a dense concentration of high-security inmates who no one thinks can be released. They must be transferred elsewhere in the system, triggering releases in the receiving facilities to avert overcrowding.
It’s a math problem. Per estimates put out by the “Men’s Central Jail Closure Work Group,” shutting down Men’s Central Jail requires reducing the system’s daily inmate census from the current 12,800 to between 8,200 and 8,500. (Jails must operate below their official “rated” capacity, to accommodate occasional fluctuations in the census and inmates’ security needs.) L.A. County does not now have in its custody 4,000 inmates who are obviously divertible in the sense of perfectly stable and low-risk. The “criminalization of mental illness” is often blamed on mass arrests for low-level “quality of life” offenses. But here, that is not the heart of the problem. The real issue, in terms of the math behind closing Men’s Central Jail, is long stayers, meaning inmates facing serious charges. Around 85 percent of the most seriously mentally ill inmates—the so-called P3 and P4 cohorts—are in on felony charges. The list of charges that the Rand Corporation, in a much-cited 2020 report, classifies as “potentially appropriate candidates for diversion” includes multiple felony gun offenses. The easiest-to-divert cases are, by this point, already out.
Where’s everyone going to live? A quality community-based diversion program requires housing. Grasping the housing challenge of diversion requires distinguishing the county jail system’s stock (the 12,800 daily population) from the flow (the tens of thousands who pass through the system each year). If the point of diversion is to disrupt the standard process of arrest and detention, then housing for the flow, not just the much smaller stock, must somehow be secured.
Progressives, normally obsessed with housing, tend to get vague when discussing the residential aspect of jail-diversion programs. Diversion housing must be paid for somehow, and sited somewhere, and at scale. The “Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group Final Report” (2020) expresses a vision of “decentralized, community-based, holistic services, provided equitably throughout the County.” That will mean, in practice, scores of siting disputes with every neighborhood that doesn’t believe that it’s the best fit for programs serving mentally ill felons. Those disputes don’t necessarily stop the housing from being built, but they often do force modifications and slow things down.
And building housing for troubled populations is not a strong suit of government in Los Angeles. The City of Los Angeles’s $1.2 billion Homelessness Reduction and Prevention Housing (HHH) initiative, authorized by voters in 2016, has been plagued by high per-unit costs and sluggish development. As of May 2023, the county Board of Supervisors’ plans for expanding diversion housing will not suffice to meet the consent decree’s terms, per legal watchdogs. To expand housing on a larger scale than currently projected, and at a more rapid clip, would require the county to outperform the city’s progress on HHH.
A housing program for mentally ill offenders can easily look like one for the homeless. Investing in diversion raises fairness questions over why offenders should receive preferential access to resources over the law-abiding, and how the county will avoid competing with itself as it tries to address multiple crises at once.
Not everyone diverted from jail needs to be sent to permanent housing. But temporary housing programs need an exit strategy, so that they can receive the next cohort of diverted mentally ill offenders. Managing such flows will require supreme competence. Studies purporting to demonstrate the soundness of Care First, Jails Last are filled with qualifications noting that scaling up diversion can work only under certain conditions, not least of which is available housing. The 2020 Rand study’s topline finding, constantly repeated by abolitionists, is that 61 percent of the jail mental-health population are definitively “appropriate candidates for diversion.” But in the fine print, Rand admits that its analysis “reflected an ‘ideal world’ scenario in which there was a sufficient number of community based treatment slots to serve the divertible individuals.” Doubtless, should Care First, Jails Last fail, insufficient affordable housing will be the first thing blamed.
Los Angeles’s mental-health system would be responsible for handling the flood of felons with serious behavioral health problems that would result from closing Men’s Central. Advocates’ confidence in that system is as misplaced as their confidence in the city’s ability to house its way out of mass incarceration. They see the only problem with public mental-health care in Los Angeles County as a tragic lack of access to resources.
Inadequate funding is not the main problem, however. The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health has a $3 billion budget, making it, as it notes on its website, the “largest county-operated mental health department in the United States.” Twenty-seven percent of that budget comes from the Mental Health Services Act, a state tax on income above $1 million dedicated for mental health. California is the only state with such a tax. Per Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the Los Angeles metro area boasts one of the nation’s densest concentrations of psychiatrists. This is a system blessed with resources—and notorious, outside the jail debate, for underperformance. Stronger oversight will require a departure from the prevailing “revenue before reform” attitude.
Scaling up diversion is, in some ways, harder than running a jail. Instead of managing a small number of centralized facilities, directly controlled by government staff, scaling up would mean ensuring the effectiveness of a decentralized network of government-funded, but privately managed, community-based programs that handle different populations and aim at different goals. In court filings explaining its failure to comply with the 2015 consent decree, the county argues forcefully that diversion is hard, that it takes time, and that everyone concerned about jail conditions for the mentally ill should exercise patience and trust. In the more political setting of Board of Supervisors meetings, however, county officials claim that diversion’s promise has been amply demonstrated and that critics argue in bad faith.
One reason to doubt the county’s readiness to operate a rigorous diversion system concerns involuntary treatment. It is a certainty that many seriously mentally ill offenders now confined to jail would, forced into the community by a Men’s Central closure, decline to use programs made available to them on a voluntary basis. Involuntary treatment is an appropriate response to “service resistance,” particularly with dangerous people. Jonathan Sherin, former head of the county mental-health department, explained to the Board of Supervisors in 2019: “If you compel treatment, you actually are going to avoid the reliance upon law enforcement and the jail.” Some Care First, Jails Last reports do mention expanding outpatient civil commitment and conservatorships, and the need for psychiatric hospital beds, to which people would, inevitably, be committed against their will. But just as scaling up diversion housing risks alienating neighborhood groups, expanding involuntary treatment will foster division within the advocacy coalition between those supportive of allowing moderate forms of coercion (like assisted outpatient treatment and conservatorship) and those opposing any form of coercion. Estimates about the rate of service resistance, and need for involuntary treatment, have not factored much into projections about the size of the jail population “appropriate” for diversion.
Men’s Central Jail should be closed and then replaced by a locked, medically oriented facility. The old, sensible plan for the Mental Health Treatment Center (with 3,500 to 4,000 beds) should be revisited. Building a secured facility to benefit mentally ill inmates will help other inmates, too. When the facility opens, taking responsibility for the care of seriously mentally ill inmates from Twin Towers, the county’s high-security but not mentally ill inmates now confined to Men’s Central can be transferred to Twin Towers.
The status quo policy—closing Men’s Central Jail without replacing it with another locked facility—poses harm to mentally ill Angelenos in at least four ways. First, currently functional community programs will wind up overwhelmed by clients more troubled than those they typically handle because, until now, jails have dealt with the hardest cases.
Second, when the mentally ill continue to commit serious crimes, they will face worse jail conditions than now, which already verge on unconstitutionally unacceptable: inmates chained to tables during their out-of-cell time and clinical evaluations, long waits for medically appropriate housing, and disturbing rates of victimization and suicide. Continued noncompliance raises the threat of a receivership for the jail system. All jail experiences are not equal, and better access to treatment behind bars can improve clinical outcomes and reduce recidivism. Twin Towers’ Forensic Inpatient Stepdown Program received a 2020 Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties. Through this program, general population inmates help their seriously mentally ill peers stay current on their medications and avoid isolation and self-harm. It’s important to have measured expectations for jail-based mental-health services, but that they are all futile—implied by the slogan “you can’t get well in a cell”—is plainly false.
Third, a poorly managed expansion of diversion, leading to more high-profile acts of community violence by the mentally ill, will worsen stigma. There is compelling evidence, cited by E. Fuller Torrey in his book Surviving Schizophrenia, that stigma against the mentally ill has increased during the recent era of mass shootings and subway shoves. L.A. jail abolitionists often claim that the public wants to see Men’s Central closed. But they have not gone out of their way to inform the public that its plan to close the jail will mean releasing large numbers of mentally ill serious offenders.
Fourth, the mentally ill, like the non–mentally ill, won’t thrive in unsafe communities. If shutting down Men’s Central Jail causes criminal activity and drug use to go up—or even if they stay at current levels—increased investment in formal mental-health programs may not make much of a difference.
In making their case for closing Men’s Central Jail, L.A. progressives sometimes say that they’ll create a new order that no one before them had the boldness to envision. Sheila Kuehl, in her 2019 remarks before voting to cancel the Mental Health Treatment Center contract, likened herself and her fellow progressives to William Wilberforce. At other times, they suggest that their approach has more to do with research than courage and vision.
The best way to think about this debate, though, is in terms of trust. Progressive abolitionists insist that county government cannot be trusted not to overuse jail. As one anti-jail activist testified at a Board of Supervisors meeting: “If you build it, they will come.” Capacity must therefore be forcibly reduced. But progressives also expect the public to trust in the success of social programs that do not yet exist. What evidence is there to believe that government in California can develop an effective community-based system of mental-health treatment? L.A. County can, and should, work on building trust in public mental health, by building a system that works. But to do that, it will need to proceed responsibly—and it will need to invest in jails.
Top Photo: On an average day, Men’s Central Jail holds about 3,400 inmates, one-quarter of all those in custody in Los Angeles County. (GARY FRIEDMAN/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES)