The False Promise of a Progressive Sheriff
On the morning of Sept. 14, the Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl stood on her front lawn barefoot as sheriff’s deputies raided her house, removing cellphones and laptops as part of an investigation into public corruption. Ms. Kuehl is one of the sheriff’s most prominent critics. And the same day, deputies raided the home of Patti Giggans, who, in addition to being a close friend and political ally of Ms. Kuehl, is a member of the civilian commission tasked with oversight of the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff in question is Alex Villanueva, who oversees a staff of roughly 18,000 and the largest jail system in the country. He was elected in 2018 on a promise to clean up a department that had been plagued by officer misconduct and abuse of incarcerated people, and to reduce the number of people in detention.
But he soon shifted course, going after his political opponents. Max Huntsman, the inspector general who monitors his operations, was banned from department databases and premises, including the jails. (Sheriff Villanueva’s office said Mr. Huntsman had been improperly handling documents.)
And after a Los Angeles Times reporter published a video of a deputy kneeling on an incarcerated person’s head for three minutes, Sheriff Villanueva implied that he would be launching an investigation — into the reporter. (“The sheriff used poor language in dealing with that press conference,” a spokesman for the Villanueva re-election campaign said, noting that the reporter is not under investigation.)
For years, the California press has chronicled these scandals, framing Sheriff Villanueva, who is on next week’s ballot, as unfit for office. Even the district attorney for Los Angeles County has called out the sheriff’s public corruption unit for “targeting” his political opponents.
But regardless of who wins Tuesday’s vote, the institutional power structure that allows Sheriff Villanueva to operate with almost total impunity will remain in place, as it does in counties across the country. And while his actions against prominent critics have captured media attention, it’s in the jails that this power structure causes the most harm — and where the need for change on a national scale is the most overwhelmingly clear.
The Los Angeles County jail system holds roughly 14,000 people in nine facilities, including Twin Towers Correctional Facility, one of the largest jails in the world. Inside, people suffer. Recent court filings allege that in just the last few months at the jail system’s Inmate Reception Center, a short-term intake facility, one man waited days for a transfer, handcuffed by both wrists to a bench while deputies neglected to give him the medication he takes to manage his schizophrenia. Another man, arrested in August, said that in the same crowded room, incarcerated people chained to benches would call out for deputies to take them to the bathroom and, getting no response, would urinate on themselves and the floor or defecate in a nearby trash can.
Sheriff Villanueva acknowledged, through a spokesman, that the facility is overcrowded, but he blamed county officials for underfunding his department. Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding have been problems for decades throughout the system.
Nationally, incidents like these are no outliers. Some of the largest county jails in the country, from Houston to San Diego, Riverside and Oklahoma, have experienced similar dysfunction and deadly conditions.
Sheriff Villanueva, for his part, is an avowed reformist in a Democratic stronghold. But across the country, in both conservative and liberal communities, jails seem immune to change.
Criminal justice reform advocates and politicians have been attempting to fix the Los Angeles County jail system for half a century. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the county in the mid 1970s and was summarily empowered to inspect conditions inside its jails, a change that created some measure of transparency. In 2016, the county also installed a Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which, in addition to the Office of Inspector General, an independent agency, monitors the sheriff’s department. And Sheriff Villanueva’s promises to clean house won over Democrats and helped sweep him to victory.
But it has long been all too easy for sheriffs to simply ignore watchdogs and avoid or abandon urgent cries for reform. As James Tomberlin, a lawyer, pointed out in a 2018 article in the Virginia Law Review, because the sheriff is technically not part of county (or city, state, or federal) government, he is insulated “almost entirely from attempts by local officials to hold him accountable.”
Sheriffs do not answer to the same checks and balances as, say, a police department does to the city or municipality with an appointed police chief and transparent budget, leaving them free to flout oversight. Today, some, like the former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio, go so far as to assert they are not answerable to city, state or federal laws, only the Constitution.
On a more basic level, as politicians and law enforcement officers, sheriffs are poorly suited to be responsible for jails. “There is something fundamentally incongruous about putting a politician in charge of the care of people in custody,” says Michele Deitch, the director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas. It’s like putting your local City Council member in charge of running the community hospital. What would he or she know about adequate nurse-to-patient ratios? You want a medical professional running a hospital, not a campaigning, glad-handing politician.
Cities, counties and states have made the situation worse by letting the jails fill up with people who don’t belong there.
Los Angeles County is a perfect example. It has failed to adequately invest in the programs that it promised to help lessen overcrowding in the jail system. For example, it doesn’t employ enough people to conduct mental health evaluations, help courts determine treatment plans, find alternatives to jails or connect people with mental health services they need — services that many judges and prosecutors enthusiastically support.
Cash bail requirements keep people in jail simply for being too poor to pay, and while the county virtually eliminated bail for nonviolent misdemeanors to reduce the jail population early in the pandemic, the County Superior Court recently reinstated it, raising the numbers again. The county has also underfunded various health care and anti-homelessness initiatives; a committee working on shuttering one county jail facility said that those initiatives would need a combined $238 million to fund a proposed addition of 3,600 beds. The A.C.L.U. had taken the county’s Board of Supervisors to task for the failure of the program. “The county absolutely has not stepped up,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the A.C.L.U.’s National Prison Project, told me.
If the county were serious about solving the root problems, it would create psychiatric crisis response centers, so that people in crisis are not sent to jail, where their medications are often dangerously, abruptly discontinued. Jails make mental health problems worse, but without adequate facilities, thousands end up behind bars.
“By default, we have become the largest treatment facility in the country,” Tim Belavich, director of correctional health services for the Los Angeles County jail system, told NPR in 2020. “A jail facility is not the appropriate place to treat someone’s mental illness.”
To prevent people from interacting with law enforcement in the first place, the county could also invest in addiction recovery centers and secure, permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness. And in that sense, the county commissioners are as much to blame for the jail conditions as the sheriff.
Without significant changes, sheriffs, even the ones who care deeply about the conditions in their jails, will continue to manage a chaotic, unwieldy, ever-shifting mass of people with myriad problems exacerbated by myriad institutional failures. It’s no wonder so many of them have failed so spectacularly.
If we want to fix America’s failing jails, we need better health care for incarcerated people, more oversight of institutions and far-reaching reform, yes, but more important, we need to drastically reduce their populations. If jails should hold anyone, it should be a small number of people, for short stays, under fully transparent administration.
The problems and solutions extend deep within the institutional design of sheriff’s departments and spread far beyond law enforcement’s mandate. And while Alex Villanueva might be voted out of office, it’s unlikely his successor will be able to make much change under the current system.
If we care at all about baseline human rights protections in this country, we need to toss serious resources behind programs that divert people from jail and get them the help they need. Anything else — even a new sheriff — is not worth our time."