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National

After Investigation, LA County Jails Agree On Sweeping Reforms

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Sweeping reforms are coming to the Los Angeles County jail. Los Angeles County must act under the terms of a landmark agreement with the United States Justice Department announced today. It's a result of a civil rights lawsuit that complained of deplorable conditions for mentally ill inmates inside LA County lockups. Frank Stoltze reports from member station KPCC.

FRANK STOLTZE, BYLINE: In one case at the jails, a 25-year-old inmate who had previously been identified as suicidal was released to the streets of Los Angeles, rearrested weeks later and placed in an isolation cell where he used a bed sheet to hang himself. This settlement to be enforced by a federal judge is designed to prevent something like that from happening again, says Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Kappelhoff.

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MARK KAPPELHOFF: These reforms mark a new day, a new day for the treatment of prisoners at the Los Angeles jails and represent a critical step forward in restoring public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.

STOLTZE: The Los Angeles County jail system is the largest in the nation. It's also sometimes called the largest mental institution in the country, housing more than 3,500 mentally ill inmates on any given day. The federal government launched its investigation after widespread reports of beatings and inadequate care that eventually forced the previous sheriff to resign last year.

The new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, says many of the reforms in the agreement already have been enacted, including less use of restraints, better identification of mentally ill inmates and crisis-intervention training for jail guards.

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JIM MCDONNELL: The agreement announced today is our promise not simply to the Department of Justice, but to the entire community. We will create a safer environment for inmates.

STOLTZE: But he also acknowledged implementing the agreement will require hiring hundreds of new guards and mental health professionals to improve treatment. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Peter Eliasberg says the sheriff's department has a long way to go to address what he called long-standing problems.

PETER ELIASBERG: Problems have been enormous, from the environmental conditions to the poor training of deputies in how to handle inmates with mental illness. But now the chickens have come home to roost.

STOLTZE: One part of the agreement requires the sheriff to develop discharge plans for mentally ill inmates so they can be placed in proper care. That's a particularly knotty challenge. Like most cities, Los Angeles lacks adequate facilities for those with mental illness.

Today's announcement does not end a federal criminal investigation into brutality against inmates inside LA County jails. For NPR News, I'm Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.