L.A. County's new/old jail problem

In 2002, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca signed a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Justice in which he undertook to implement sweeping reforms to improve the care of mentally ill inmates held in the nation's largest jail system. A decade later, however, the Justice Department is back, saying it is skeptical that Baca has followed through and initiating a new civil rights probe to determine just what progress has or has not been made.

The civil investigation — prompted in part by allegations that sheriff's deputies have been abusing inmates, including those who are mentally ill, as well as an increase in inmate suicides — comes on top of an ongoing criminal probe by the federal government into the use of excessive force by deputies in the jails. In July, the Justice Department concluded another investigation, finding that L.A. County sheriff's deputies in the Antelope Valley repeatedly violated the civil rights of African Americans and Latinos, including using excessive force against handcuffed individuals.

The Justice Department's concerns, while deeply troubling, are hardly surprising. After all, myriad reports have surfaced in recent years that point to problems in the care of mentally ill inmates. In 2011, for example, The Times' Robert Faturechi reported that a sheriff's deputy who graduated at the top of his recruit class quit after just a few weeks, alleging that his supervisor made him beat up a mentally ill inmate. And late last year, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, set up by the county Board of Supervisors, found that according to the department's own data, "30% of the use-of-force incidents in custody" involved inmates with a history of mental illness.

The jails commission went on to note that even though Baca had personally signed the 2002 agreement with the Justice Department, and presumably understood that he needed to comply with it, eight years later he stated in a sworn deposition that he "had never seen this agreement" and "was unaware of any DOJ findings regarding mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in the county jails."

Whether Baca failed to fulfill his obligation under the 2002 agreement remains to be seen. But surely the county shouldn't wait for the Justice Department's findings to address the problem. The Board of Supervisors and Department of Mental Health officials must take a greater role in ensuring that the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates aren't violated and that treatment or diversion programs are put in place.

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