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Los Angeles County supervisors approved construction of new 3,800-bed downtown jail

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LOS ANGELES — A week after agreeing to let a federal court oversee its treatment of the mentally ill in jails, Los Angeles County leaders on Tuesday approved programs to treat them in a new jail and keep at least 1,000 out of lockups.

The Board of Supervisors ordered staff to look into creating a $120 million Office of Diversion and Reentry that eventually would coordinate community treatment and housing programs for non-violent mentally ill offenders in a bid to keep them out of jail.

Supervisors also approved a previously unannounced amendment to restart construction of a 3,885-bed downtown Los Angeles jail called the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility. It would replace the dilapidated and frequently overcrowded Men's Central Jail, which was built in 1963.

The county jail system — the nation's largest — has about 17,000 inmates. The new lockup, which is expected to cost more than $1 billion, would be designed to house the estimated 1 in 5 inmates that have mental health or addiction issues.

Also approved was continued work on a new 1,604-bed women's jail in Lancaster.

Work on the lockups was halted in June so an analysis could be done to estimate how many jail beds would be needed in future after critics argued that jail alternatives, such as community-based treatment programs, might reduce the need.

Tuesday's vote reduced the number of beds for the planned downtown jail by 1,000. Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees the jails, told supervisors that a 3,885-bed facility will lack enough space for all of the mentally ill inmates.

That would mean placing more of the mentally ill offenders elsewhere.

"This is an historic attempt by this county to do something different, to turn around a very unwieldy and huge ship that has primarily been about incarceration, incarceration, incarceration and it hasn't worked," said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas also supported diverting non-violent, low-level mentally ill offenders into non-jail programs.

"We know diversion is the right thing to do, and to do so with taxpayer dollars in a prudent and effective way," Ridley-Thomas said. "We declare it is a superior alternative to incarceration."

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with the county and its Sheriff's Department that will bring its jails under court oversight to address the treatment of mentally ill inmates. Once the agreement is approved in federal court, it will be overseen by an independent monitor and team of mental health and corrections experts.

The Justice Department originally opened an investigation in 1996 and found constitutional deficiencies related to the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, suicide prevention and excessive force.

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