Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Stephen Eide. He’s been on the show before. He’s a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, a City Journal contributing editor. He researches social policy questions, really emphasizing homelessness, mental illness, issues like that. His work has appeared in any number of outlets in addition to City Journal, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, National Review, other publications. He’s the author of the recent book, Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem. And today, we’re going to be discussing a question that involves homelessness as explored in his essay in our new issue called “Men’s Central Madness,” which appears in this summer issue of City Journal and chronicles the movement to close one of Los Angeles County’s main jails. So Steve, thanks very much for joining us.
Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Anderson: So, yeah. For listeners who aren’t familiar with what’s going on in L.A., for more than a decade now, L.A. County officials have been debating the fate of Men’s Central Jail, which is this big correctional facility located near downtown L.A. that’s been notorious for its poor inmate conditions, right? I mean, how big is the jail? It’s over 3,000 prisoners, right?
Stephen Eide: Yeah. So about a quarter of the total system capacity. And this is a very large system. L.A. County is the largest county in America.
Brian Anderson: And so it also has 40 percent of the county’s highest security inmates, so people who are potentially dangerous. So since its initial construction, which was in 1963, the jail has expanded several times over the years to accommodate a growing inmate population. Yet critics have said it doesn’t meet modern standards, that there’s a lot of problems with it. They want to shut it down. So let’s start with the conditions at Men’s Central Jail. What is the big issue there that has some advocates wanting to see the jail closed?
Stephen Eide: Well, it might make sense to compare it to the close Rikers debate in New York City. In both cases, you have old facilities that everyone agrees need to be replaced. They’re designed, built essentially in the post-war era. They’re decrepit. They need to be replaced. There’s no doubt about that. In the case of close Rikers, New York City, they essentially went to replace the entire system, however, at a greatly reduced capacity. That means it really grows in practicality in terms of where you get to the number of inmates they want to get to versus where they are now.
In L.A., they don’t want to replace the entire jail system. It’s just take one very large jail, Men’s Central, and close it without replacing it. That’s the key thing. When this debate about replacing this old facility began 10, 15 years ago, it was, “What are you going to replace it with?” Then in 2019, as a result of the influence of progressive criminal justice reform advocates, they decided, “No, no, no. We’re not going to replace that jail at all. We’re going to shut it down. We’re going to slash system capacity and somehow have the slack be taken up by social programs, alternatives to incarceration, et cetera.” And it’s just very hazy about how all that would play out.
Brian Anderson: So the idea though would be to close this jail, but there’s been a subsequent debate over whether the jail should be replaced with a completely modern facility. And instead, now, they just want to close it. What is the assumption about particularly these dangerous criminals that are in Men’s Central? And also, what is going to be the effect on the mentally ill inmates who are often the subject of some of these complaints from the advocates? What is the idea going forward for these inmates?
Stephen Eide: Yeah. And that’s the case that I really try to focus on in my essay because this argument developed that gave a lot of force to the shutdown argument, which is that there are too many mentally ill people in jail in L.A. County, they’re pushing up the inmate census, and thus, if we slash jail capacity, that will force the system to release many mentally ill inmates. And that will be good because being in jail is bad for the mentally ill. Again, there’s some parts of this we can all agree with. There are too many mentally ill people in jail in L.A. County.
However, the idea that you can just let them out as well as any number of people charged with felonies, and it will simply be better than the current baseline standard is very speculative here. It’s not an unfair comparison to the original argument about deinstitutionalization. The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, whereas that there was a sense that well, conditions in the old mental asylums are so bad, it can’t get any worse. And we found out through a lot of tough experience that, in fact, things could still be very, very bad even when people are on the outside. Whether you’re talking about on the outside of a jail or on the outside of a decrepit mental asylum, it’s still the same issue.
Brian Anderson: So you may wind up with a lot more people unable to cope living on the streets contributing to homelessness and disorder in the city. One of the contentions that the advocates have made is that this is not going to have an effect on crime and incarceration, or I should say, crime numbers in the city. What’s your view on that? Crime has been up in recent years in L.A. in some neighborhoods pretty badly.
Stephen Eide: Yeah. Since the vote was taken in 2019 to not replace Men’s Central Jail, murders, certainly in L.A. City, ticked up significantly. This is the post-2020 era. There’s no evidence that crime is just permanently under control. It’s in a permanently stable flat-lining or even declining case, which means you’re going to need jail capacity. What happens to the people next year, 5, 10 years from now who are mentally ill or who aren’t mentally ill, who will need to be held in jail? Because it appears to be the case that L.A. is still going to need to send people to jail. What kind of conditions will they experience? Well, it looks like they will continue to experience the very poor conditions that they’re in now. You could improve that situation.
You could make conditions better for the people who will have to be admitted to jail if you invested in the jail system, but that’s what the progressive advocates really don’t want to do. It’s somewhat similar to this concept of the progressive version of starve the beast. This concept that our boss, Reihan and Charles Lehman, have talked about where in the same way that some Republicans have sometimes resisted tax increases, and that’s called starve the beast, the fiscal version. Here, we have progressives really resisting the idea of sending more money to public safety agencies even though there’s a clear need. There’s a clear need in cases like L.A. to invest in jails to improve conditions, but ideologically, that just doesn’t fit with what progressives are thinking right now.
Brian Anderson: Let’s go back to this idea of closing Men’s Central Jail without a replacement and the housing component of this and the services component. So as you note in the piece, this would require quality community-based diversion programs to provide housing, mental health treatment to all of these newly released inmates. That diversion housing would have to be paid for, you would have to put it somewhere, and it would have to be scaled. You would need a lot more of it. And this is a process I imagine that would take a long time, right? Even if it went according to plan.
Stephen Eide: Yes. And in a community, Los Angeles, which is notorious for its street crisis and also notorious for the difficulty that government has encountered in trying to build housing for the homeless, which is a pretty similar exercise to building housing for some alternative to incarceration program. Jails are centralized facilities. Everybody’s held in one place and under one central government authority. This idea of diversion programs, is it going to be highly decentralized, run by some nonprofits, lots of them doing different things. None of this has really been thought through adequately.
It’s called the Care First, Jails Last movement—the progressive movement that’s really got hold on the jail debate in LA. They’ve put out just a huge number of long reports, which they claim have proven that this is going to work, that the evidence is behind this, social science has verified it. But I read through all of this literature, and it’s just really vague on some basic details like where is everybody going to live, where are you going to put all this housing, where are the neighborhoods who are going to welcome all this diversionary housing. None of those, I think, pretty obvious questions have been answered, and yet it’s full steam ahead.
Brian Anderson: And the county doesn’t have a particularly good track record on constructing housing or providing mental health services, correct?
Stephen Eide: Well, yeah. The county or the city, it’s an expensive place. It’s the same kind of neighborhood controversies that you find elsewhere. And as far as mental health goes, yeah, again, it’s pretty similar to New York City. There are certainly communities in America where there’s just essentially no public mental health care system. There are no clinicians, no psychiatrists, there’s just no programs. That is not the case with New York City and L.A. These are systems with huge resources compared to other places in America. And yet the question is, well, why don’t they do more with what they have? The progressives would say, “Well, the reason why the system has underperformed is it just doesn’t have the resources.” Well, it’s had a lot more resources in other communities. And yet, if you visit Skid Row in L.A., you’re going to see a lot of people with untreated serious mental illness who for some reason have fallen through the cracks of the system. And that same system is who would be expected to do even more work with this Men’s Central Jail closure plan. It just seems very, very speculative to me.
Brian Anderson: Your argument is that the city should go back to the plan it originally had, which was to close Men’s Central Jail, sure, but to replace it with a modern facility. What would that look like, ideally?
Stephen Eide: Well, it would be a medically oriented custodial facility. A custodial facility, so it’s locked, it’s secure, but it’s more oriented towards medical and especially mental health needs of the people who are going to need to be confined in it. Things like sight and sound privacy. Like places that would afford more private settings to speak with clinicians out of the eyesight and earshot of other inmates. There’s so much you can do. Everyone understands what something like that would look like, especially in terms of how it would be an improvement over the status quo in L.A. County jail’s physical stock. And they had a decent plan that had been developed over a number of years. Another crucial factor there is that there’s a legal dimension to this. Legally, L.A. County entered into this consent decree in 2015 with the Department of Justice to essentially work to improve conditions for mentally ill inmates.
It is not in conformity with the requirements of that consent decree. And when that consent decree was signed, the understanding was we’re working to build a new facility that will help us line up, come and do alignment with the consent decree. But now there’s no facility, no plan for a new facility, and so it’s even more doubtful that there are going to meet the terms of the consent decree to improve terms for mentally ill inmates. In New York City, this is a very live issue, what is the role of courts in overseeing jails, do you want a receiver. In the case of L.A. County, the place of courts, the role of courts is viewed a little bit more positively because it’s seen as a way to force the case that you really need to invest in jails in order to improve conditions for mentally ill inmate.
Brian Anderson: So where does the political debate stand? Where does the public come in in this debate at this point in time?
Stephen Eide: Well, the progressives believe that the public supports them. They have one certain kind of initiative successes that they claim, prove the public does not want this plan, the Care First, Jails Last plan and all its details. The idea that you are really going to have to release thousands of individuals, many of them mentally ill who are charged with felonies, somehow, into the community, where they’ll be stabilized there is not, I think, an idea that most average Angelinos like the sound of. And so that explains a little bit the hesitancy of the politicians in actually executing it and going forward with it. So we’re in a holding pattern where the full extent of the plan has not been implemented. Men’s Central Jail is still currently open, and yet, I think there’s a way in which people are still unsure as to whether or not this is something that the public is going to fully embrace in the way that the progressives imply they will.
Brian Anderson: Well, hopefully, they will consult your excellent essay, Steve, because it’s a lucid explainer of this whole complicated debate and where it stands. Don’t forget to check out Steve Eide’s work on the City Journal website. That’s at www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description. The essay in question is called “Men’s Central Madness.” It’s in our summer issue. You can also find City Journal on Twitter that’s @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As usual, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a good rating on iTunes. Steve Eide, always great to have you on.
Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me, Brian.