No Los Angeles County mental health complex at Central Jail site

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Los Angeles County won’t be transforming Men’s Central Jail into a downtown Los Angeles mental health treatment center. At least, not for now.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel a $1.7 billion contract for the center, which would have been built and designed by McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. Originally planned to hold 3,885 beds, the facility was later downsized to 2,500 beds.

If built, it would have been one of the largest mental health centers in the state.

The population of inmates who are medically or mentally ill has surged in recent years, making up an estimated 70% of people held in the county jail system. For that reason, many community advocates have said that the facility could become simply another jail, in the guise of a treatment center.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has argued that such a facility is nonetheless necessary, even if treatment is the ultimate goal.

“The stark reality is we also need a therapeutic environment for those mentally ill inmates who must remain in custody. Unfortunately, due to violent offenders and the need to balance diversion with public safety, there will always be a need for mental health beds within our jails,” Villanueva said in a statement in April.

Activists and advocates, many of whom assembled Tuesday on the steps of the Kenneth Hall of Administration to demonstrate their opposition to the mental health facility, disagreed. According to Supervisor Hilda Solis, who assembled alongside the gathered activists, operating such a treatment center could prove both ineffective and expensive.

“I am more and more convinced that mental health care cannot be done effectively within a custody environment,” she said. “Data collection and community input is needed to better inform what a modern criminal justice system in L.A. County should look like. Without these prerequisites, we do not know what this project would, or should, look like – and therefore it is premature to fund any part of it.”

Solis and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl co-wrote the motion to kill the $1.7 billion design-build contract for the
mental health treatment center.

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