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L.A. Jails—Bursting & Brutal



The Los Angeles County jail system, composed of eight facilities, is the largest jail complex in the United states. The jails are supervised by the Los Angeles county Sheriff’s Department. In February, the L.A. jails held approximately 17,000 men and women—more than all of the inmates incarcerated in the 63 counties of New York.

Jails are different from prisons. Jails are managed by local governments and were intended to hold individuals awaiting trial or inmates serving short sentences (usually less than 365 days).

Prisons are operated by state governments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and are designed to hold individuals convicted of crimes and are usually serving sentences of more than 364 days.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the overcrowded L.A. jail system. The most recent cause stemmed from Gov. Brown reducing the overcrowded state system, pursuant to a Supreme Court decision in 2011 ( from 200% capacity to 137% capacity).

The governor enacted legislation that defendants convicted of non-serious, non-violent and non-sex-related offences were sentenced to county jails instead of state prison. The Los Angeles County jail population jumped by 20% between 2011 and 2012.

Overcrowded jails led to violence. Violence between inmates and violence between sheriffs and inmates. Keep in mind that the majority of those held in jail were waiting for their court date and were still innocent of any crime. Many of the inmates could not afford bail, because of lack of funds.

A culture of brutality has existed in the L.A. jails. In March, Lee Baca, who managed the sheriff’s department 1998–2014, was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into inmate abuse at Los Angeles County jails. One witness, Paulino Juarez, a chaplain at the Men’s Central Jail, testified that in 2009, he found three deputy sheriffs kicking, kneeing and punching an inmate who appeared to be handcuffed. They did not stop this attack, until the deputy sheriffs realized the chaplain was watching them.

The federal investigation into civil rights violations for brutality and corruption at the L.A. county jails have resulted in convictions and guilty pleas by a number of lower-ranking officers, including a retired sheriff’s captain.

The new L.A. sheriff, Jim McDonnell,has tried to give transparency to the jail system and change the culture of violence. The department has installed hundreds of cameras throughout the 8 jails. According to Dignity and Power Now, a prisoner advocacy group, the use of violence by the deputy sheriffs has declined. On the other hand, Sheriff McDonnell was blocked by the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, a union, from delivering a list of 300 officers accused of “moral turpitude”, which included tampering with evidence, using force unnecessarily or domestic violence, to the district attorney’s office.

The Los Angeles County jails are another example of our broken system of justice.

By: Bradley Schwartz
Founder of
Prison Consultant

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