LA County Cancels Mental Health Jail Project in Favor of “Care First” Approach

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to cancel a nearly $2 billion contract to build a mental health-focused jail and will instead explore funding community-based mental health and substance abuse care for residents.


At the LA County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 13, 2019, Rosana Gomez holds a sign supporting diversion of county funding for a jail to health and job programs for youth. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

The board voted in February to replace the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles with a facility that combined jail custody with mental health services for incarcerated people.

Officials had approved a $1.7 billion design-build contract with McCarthy Building Companies for the proposed 4,000-bed facility, to be called the Mental Health Treatment Center.

The county has long sought to demolish and replace the aging and scandal-plagued jail, but – facing pressure over the last decade from jail reform advocates, who demanded a “care first” approach that diverts jail funding into community-based health programs – supervisors reworked their plan.

Under a motion authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, the board voted 4-1 on Tuesday to cancel the county’s contract with McCarthy, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger the lone vote against the motion. 

Solis said in a statement that the county will work to embrace the “care first, jail last” approach.

“Men’s Central Jail must be demolished, but we must replace it within a criminal justice system that includes a modern, decentralized countywide continuum of non-custody community-based care facilities,” said Solis, adding that the county should investigate how it can expand on efforts it began in 2015 to divert eligible individuals out of jail and into health and housing support programs. 

Supervisors on Tuesday cited a county report that found that 56% of people with serious mental illness in the jails could qualify for diversion into community-based programs. 

Mike Myers, president of McCarthy Southern California said in a statement that the company respects the board’s “decision to see its current and ongoing studies impacting facility configuration through to completion,” adding that the move is “a thoughtful exercise in patience and due diligence to ensure the county of Los Angeles makes the best decision for handling this project and exploration of new directions.”

More than 230 members of the JusticeLA coalition filled the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown LA, many wearing bright orange shirts with “can’t get well in a cell” written on the back.

The jail accountability and mental health coalition has said that it would prefer to have mental health and substance abuse treatment centers in each of the five supervisorial districts, rather than construct new jails.

Justice LA coalition representative Ivette Ale told reporters after the vote that the board’s action represents a critical move in favor of alternatives to incarceration. 

“We’ve witnessed today a huge shift, not just away from building new jails, but a shift in terms of how we view public safety. It seemed impossible for so long but today we’ve achieved the impossible,” Ale said. “We’re not just saying don’t build, we’re saying build this. Build community-based infrastructure that supports folks with mental health issues.”

Many of the nearly 250 residents who gave public comments on the motion expressed concern with the idea that the LA County Sheriff’s Department could run a jail that provides adequate health services. 

“Cops running a mental health hospital, what could possibly go wrong,” LA resident Hanna Kawano told supervisors.

Supervisors initially touted the Mental Health Treatment Center as a site where treatment could be offered to the growing population of detained individuals in the jail system who are living with mental illness. 

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who backed the project, told supervisors Tuesday that nearly 5,700 of the county’s nearly 17,800 inmates live with some form of mental illness. 

Villanueva – who has clashed in recent months with supervisors over his controversial move to rehire a deputy accused of domestic violence – said in a statement that Tuesday’s vote was “irresponsible” and a danger to public safety.  

“The Board of Supervisors actions to cancel the McCarthy contract is irresponsible because it would leave high security inmates who are housed in single cells without a place to stay,” Villanueva said. “This is a public safety issue and should something awful happen to a member of our community, it lies directly with the Board of Supervisor’s action taken today.” 

Villanueva had previously supported the board’s vote in February to abandon plans to move a women’s jail from South LA to a larger site in the high desert city of Lancaster.

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