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L.A. County must reform jail system

The ACLU urges Sheriff Jim McDonnell and L.A. County officials to ensure proper treatment for inmates

Compton Herald | L.A. county
Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. Photo courtesy L.A. County

Criminal trial convictions of Lee Baca, Paul Tanaka underscore massive change needed in the county jail

Editor’s Note: American Civil Liberties Union Chief Counsel Peter Eliasberg, penned this opinion following the jury’s verdict in the federal trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who was convicted on three felonies of obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and making a false statement to federal investigators.


The jury’s decision to convict Lee Baca for obstructing an FBI investigation into widespread abuse of jail inmates was yet another acknowledgment that for many years our county jail system has been broken and must be held up to greater public scrutiny.

Compton Herald | Peter Eliasberg

Peter Eliasberg is chief counsel/Manheim Family attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU of Southern California. Photo: ACLU

The ACLU of Southern California applauds the positive steps L.A. county has taken toward reforming its policies and practices to curb physical abuse in the wake of the report by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence and the entry of the consent decree in the Rosas v. Baca lawsuit brought by the ACLU and its co-counsel, Paul Hastings. This also includes the creation of the Civilian Oversight Commission. But those steps, along with the convictions of Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, do not mitigate the continued need for reform.

In addition, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions continue to plague the jails. Inmates with mental illnesses, many of whom belong not in jail but in community treatment, frequently do not receive proper care for their conditions. People are kept in jail pretrial simply because they are too poor to make bail.

The ACLU urges Sheriff Jim McDonnell and county officials to institute new policies that will ensure proper treatment for inmates with mental illness and reform of the pretrial system. These changes will help lower the jail population, allow for the closure of the Men’s Central Jail, which is little more than a modern-day medieval dungeon, and allow the county to reconsider its misguided plans to build a massive new jail.

Moving forward on these reforms will make the Los Angeles County jail system a model for the nation.

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