LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Federal prosecutors and Los Angeles County officials on Wednesday morning announced a settlement to resolve two federal civil rights investigations into conditions in the county jail system.
The settlement includes reforms aimed at ending a sharp rise in jail suicides documented in a federal report on the county jail system last June, as well as ending prisoner abuse and improving generally poor jail conditions that the American Civil Liberties Union has described as the worst in the country. The agreement was announced at the U.S. Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles.
The sweeping changes will include putting into place a “coordinated multi-department county-wide systemic approach” to tackle mental health issues in county jails, including using Department of Mental Health (DMH) clinicians and medical services to provide crisis intervention and suicide prevention assistance, officials said.
The agreement also funds more than 500 additional LASD staff positions to provide more frequent safety checks and more than 160 additional DMH positions to contact, assess and provide treatment. Nearly 20 additional LASD staff positions were also funded to work with DMH clinicians as joint roving teams to contact inmates and identify persons with mental illness, according to authorities.
The county will pay $215 million for the changes, CBS2/KCAL9’s Steve Lopez reports. As part of the settlement, pending litigation and federal investigations into the jail system will be dismissed.
The long-awaited reforms come la year into Sheriff Jim McDonald’s term.
Many of the abuses detailed in the federal investigations came under the watch of former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, and his former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka. In May, Tanaka and Capt. William “Tom” Carey were charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly tampering with an FBI probe into allegations that deputies had abused inmates.
More recently, reforms have begun to take place. The settlement is aimed at further ensuring staffing levels in jails are adequate for proper inmate supervision and care, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO.
“We were already on this path to do much more about rehabilitation, much more about mental health treatment,” Kuehl said. “This is not coddling prisoners, this is an investment in the future of the county.”
U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Deckerhich said in a statement she hopes the settlement helps the county avoid “protracted litigation” and “provides a blueprint for durable reform.”
The agreement is the culmination of nearly a decade of investigation by the Justice Department into the county’s jails. The Justice Department originally opened its investigation in 1996 and found constitutional deficiencies related to the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, suicide prevention and excessive force.
In 2002, the Justice Department entered into a memorandum of agreement with the county and the Sheriff to address these issues. But in 2014, the Justice Department concluded in a letter to the county that the Sheriff’s Department was still failing in those areas.
The Los Angeles County jails is the largest jail system in the country. It houses 15,000 to 19,000 prisoners on a daily basis and an average of 4,000 suffer from a mental illness — more than the number of patients in the California State Hospital system. The jail systems is currently not staffed or designed for the therapeutic care of those in custody, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement.
McDonnell said he welcomes outside eyes on the department and that the agreement is an “opportunity to be on the leading edge of reform.”
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