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LA Sheriff Lee Baca chooses Terri McDonald, undersecretary for California prisons, to head LA jails

Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail
Corey Bridwell/KPCC

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If all goes according to plan, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department will announce a new custody chief next week.

After a nationwide search, Sheriff Lee Baca has notified the L.A. Board of Supervisors of his choice, Terri McDonald, for the post of assistant sheriff for custody. McDonald serves as undersecretary for operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where she started as a correctional officer 24 years ago.

The job is a brand new one, created at the recommendation of L.A.'s Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence. Last year it issued a scathing report on violence in L.A. county's lockups. Baca has said he'll follow through on many of the commission's recommendations.

"The commission found too many layers of bureaucracy between the sheriff and custody," said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the commission. The commission wanted someone who would elevate and professionalize the department's custody functions; the commission said those often took a back seat to the more prestigious patrol division. 

"The commission wanted new leadership, someone with correctional expertise," Krinsky said. 

Until now, there has been no one person accountable for managing the department's custody division. That job fell to Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who's also in charge of technical services, court services, and leadership and training. 

That position has historically reported to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. The commission took aim at him for what it called his "troubling role" in allegedly allowing deputy-on-inmate violence to continue in Men's Central Jail.

So long as no members of the Board object to McDonald's suggested $223,087 base salary, she will report directly to Baca, said department spokesman Steve Whitmore. It's not clear whether McDonald, who served as a correctional captain during her time at CDCR, would be uniformed and armed at the sheriff's department.

Whitmore said Baca chose McDonald because of her extensive career in corrections and because of her expertise in the realignment program that's has shifted responsibility for thousands of offenders from state prisons to county jails.

"The sheriff is very pleased she's agreed to come," Whitmore said.

If her appointment goes through (the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has until February 15 to lodge any objections), McDonald will face a host of challenges.

"One of the most elusive questions," Krinsky said, "is of how you change the culture within the  custody department--sanctioned violence, the code of silence. That will take a serious effort and hands-on engagement."

McDonald is a graduate of the University of San Francisco. She was not immediately available for comment.

Clarification: This report originally suggested McDonald would report in part to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. A sheriff's spokesman clarified that she would report directly to the sheriff.