LOS ANGELES (CBS) — The Men’s Central Jail, which has been long plagued by allegations of violence and abuse against inmates, could be closed by next year by releasing thousands of low-risk offenders into community supervision programs and upgrading existing facilities elsewhere, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report, prepared by corrections expert James Austin and commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union in cooperation with the Sheriff’s Department, outlines a series of steps the county could take to phase out the 1963-era jail at 441 Bauchet St.

“The Austin report shows that Los Angeles County can safely shut down Men’s Central Jail and at the same time help end the crisis of mass incarceration in America,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “If Sheriff (Lee) Baca follows the key recommendations in this report, his leadership would provide a national model for reform.”

Baca has long called for the closure of the facility.

“Our (overall jail system) population of more than 17,000 inmates includes some of the most violent of the violent, but they’re all entitled to appropriate standards of care and protection, and that is why this report is important,” Baca said at a news conference with ACLU officials releasing the report.

Federal officials are investigating the sheriff’s department for alleged abuses by jailers at the downtown lockup, which houses arrestees awaiting trial, convicted inmates en route to state prisons and non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders — about 4,500 inmates in all, according to sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore.

According to the Austin report, the jail could be closed by the end of 2013 if the county releases about 3,000 low-risk inmates — including about 1,000 awaiting trial — and hands them over to community-based supervision and education programs designed to reduce recidivism.

The report also calls for the renovation of the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic to replace maximum-security beds at Men’s Central Jail, and suggests the county take control of five conservation camps being given up by the state, a move that would increase the number of minimum-security beds available.

Austin also suggests in the report that the county implement a program of screening pre-trial inmates and assigning those considered to be low-risk to community-based programs to prevent them from taking up space in jails. The report also suggests that people convicted of non-violent offenses participate in an education-based incarceration program that could reduce the jail population by as much as 2,000.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said Baca was going to “seriously consider” the recommendations in the study. He said the Sheriff’s Department cooperated with Austin in preparing the study and provided him with jail-system data.

“He (Baca) has long wanted to close Men’s Central Jail,” Whitmore said.

In November, Baca proposed a $1.4 billion plan to replace Men’s Central with a new jail and renovate other facilities, including the North County Correctional Facility, but the Board of Supervisors balked at the price tag.

Baca “applauds this study” but “has not yet agreed to do anything,” Whitmore said, adding that several other officials, including the Board of Supervisors and District Attorney Steve Cooley, would be involved in any decision.

Los Angeles County expects an influx of 7,000 state prisoners convicted of non-violent charges under the state’s realignment plan, according to the study. It concludes that if the recommendations are implemented, the modified jail system could handle the new prisoners and still show a 10 percent vacancy rate countywide.

“The ACLU and Sheriff Baca may disagree on many things,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California. “But we strongly agree that the Austin report provides a crucial roadmap for closing the infamous Men’s Central Jail, while savings county taxpayers billions of dollars and increasing public safety.”

The full report can be found here.

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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