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Crime & Justice

LA sheriff candidates answer questions on jail reform, pre-trial release

The next LA County sheriff must address violence and overcrowding inside one of the largest jail systems in the nation.
The next LA County sheriff must address violence and overcrowding inside one of the largest jail systems in the nation.
Grant Slater/KPCC

One of the key issues facing the next Los Angeles County sheriff is how to reduce violence inside county jails and manage a growing population as state prisons transfer more inmates to local lockups. The FBI continues an investigation into jail violence and corruption that's already produced 20 federal criminal indictments.

KPCC asked a series of questions about jails to each of the seven candidates. Five responded. Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers and former Sheriff’s Lieutenant Patrick Gomez did not.

The primary election is June 3. The top two candidates will face off in a November runoff.

RELATED: KPCC's coverage of the race for L.A. County Sheriff

This may have been the easiest question for Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who wrote: “Not only do I support the recommendation for a 'dual track' system, I helped craft it as a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence."

But as the only person running who’s never served in the department, McDonnell would have to deal with the powerful labor union that represents deputies for the first time. “I have experience working successfully with police unions at the LAPD and in Long Beach and am confident that I could work with the deputy union,” he wrote.

Only former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka refused to commit to the dual track system. “I believe that we must explore the options available to us,” he wrote. “I do believe that we should make sure that those assigned to the jails and want to move on to patrol, should be able to do so – we need those individuals keeping our neighborhoods safe.”

Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, former Sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted and LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince all committed to a dual track system for deputies.

Hellmold said all deputies should receive the same training, however, in case jail guards must also end up working in the field during emergencies. He also said he’d limit street deputies to serving no more than two years in the jails.

“I have already been involved with communicating my vision with [the deputies' union] leadership and members and confident my vision reflects that of our members,” Hellmold wrote.

Olmsted included this in his response: “Although the dual-track is one method to resolving the problems in the jail, however, the primary concern is the lack of good leadership and adequate managerial oversight.” He noted he reduced use of force at Men’s Central Jail by 25 percent when he ran the facility.

Vince, a former Sheriff's Department reserve officer, said he would convince the deputies' labor union to accept any changes by offering perks: “I would also 'sweeten' the deal by seeking to implement organization-wide compressed work schedules and returning 'gym time' (they would get 15-20 minutes for on duty physical fitness),” Vince wrote.

The leading candidates all said they want to see Men’s Central Jail torn down, but were vague about what should replace it. All said more mentally ill patients should go to treatment programs instead of jails.

“As Sheriff, I will change the focus from mass incarceration of mentally ill and non-violent criminals to alternatives to custody and community transition programs centered on education, rehabilitation and development,” Hellmold wrote. 

“Approximately 20 percent of our jail inmates are mentally ill and are being warehoused in an environment that only exacerbates their illnesses,” McDonnell said.

Tanaka wrote: “The first question we must ask and answer is, Who are we incarcerating in MCJ? Are there offenders whom can be funneled to other programs or treatment facilities? Regardless, the MCJ must be replaced sooner than later.”

Olmsted offered the most specific suggestion: “I propose for the first floor of the new MCJ [Men’s Central Jail] to be an area dedicated to the betterment of inmates, ranging from education to job training.”

Only Vince said the jail should be torn down, but not replaced. He said he’d seek to change how the justice system deals with someone who has violated the terms of their probation: “Just ‘violating’ someone and sending them back to jail only exacerbates whatever problem or issue led to the behavior that caused the violation.” He suggested creating dormitories and “Revocation Centers” that would offer inmates services.

Only Tanaka would not commit to a risked-based pre-trial jail release program.

“I would be willing to consider releasing those awaiting trial, only after consultation and agreement with the L.A. County District Attorney,” Tanaka wrote. “These are issues that should be discussed fully, openly and completely before a major policy decision is made."

The other four candidates said some number of people being held in jail awaiting trial could be safely released.

McDonnell: “This is not simply a more cost-effective and sensible approach for our entire County — ensuring jail space is reserved for those who truly need to be removed from society — but also allows individuals not yet convicted of any crime to continue working and supporting their families.” 

Olmsted: “Releasing those people who are awaiting trial and not considered to be a risk to the community would help alleviate a portion of the overcrowding dilemma. I do promise to lobby the Board of Supervisors for that power as Sheriff.”

Vince: “I believe that there are too many people held in jail pending trial. I support and will seek to make better use of Pretrial Release by lobbying the [Board of Supervisors] for that authority.” Vince added this analysis: “Bails are set so high that a large percentage of people cannot afford the 10 percent, non-refundable bond fee that a bondsman charges, much less the bail itself. Research has shown that it is not true that most people will not show up for trial without a hefty bond.”

Hellmold: “I will engage in more pre-trial releases only for suspects who do not pose an immediate threat to our community.”