Next year's LA County budget proposal: improve jails, child welfare

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said a lot of the money that's proposed to go to his department would improve conditions for mentally ill inmates in L.A.'s county jails.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell said a lot of the money that's proposed to go to his department would improve conditions for mentally ill inmates in L.A.'s county jails.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles County's Chief Executive Office has released a proposed spending plan for the coming fiscal year and priorities include reforms in the county jails, beefing up front line staff to protect kids from abuse and neglect and improving patient access to quality health care. 

The county is expecting at least $26.9 billion in revenues for the coming 2015-16 fiscal year, a slight bump from last year's initial spending plan. Interim CEO Sachi Hamai said the extra money comes mainly from increasing property tax revenue, but the county is also getting more from the state and federal governments. It's the second consecutive year of budget growth since the Great Recession hit in 2007.

Under the proposal - which still must be approved by county Supervisors - some agencies cut during the recession would grow next year.

The county's lifeguards, for instance, would get $1.5 million that was cut from their program during the recession. The budget also proposes $170.8 million to fix up neglected county buildings and properties.

The biggest bumps would go to it's two big, beleaguered agencies: the Department of Children and Family Services and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. 

More social workers

The proposed budget sets aside $66.9 for DCFS to hire 542 social workers, supervisors and support staff.

The department has been under intense media scrutiny and social workers who handle child abuse and neglect cases have been complaining about high caseloads.

The agency's director, Philip Browning, said the extra funds proposed would bring caseloads for social workers from 18-25 per worker down to 17-20, depending on the risk level of the children. He said giving them time to focus is crucial.

"So much depends on the worker being able to spend time with the family and the children," Browning said.

But even these increases wouldn't get the department down to what he considers an ideal caseload, he said. That's about 15 children per worker.

"It's still too high," Browning told KPCC. "My pie in the sky dream would be to hire 800 to 1,000 more workers - but that would take a lot of money."

Improving county jails

The proposed budget allocates $99.2 million for "criminal justice system improvements."

Sheriff Jim McDonnell told KPCC most of the money – 65 million dollars – is designed to reduce the use of force against jail inmates, particularly mentally ill inmates.

"Much of the use of force that has gone on in the past has involved some of that population," he said. 

If approved, he said the extra funds would pay for week-long crisis intervention training for jail staff.

It would also hire 521 new people – mostly deputies and custody assistants at the jails, according to assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald.

"If we get the staffing augmentation, we’ll be able to get the mentally ill inmates out of their cell more often and for longer durations for mental health treatment," she said. 

The U.S. Department of Justice requires mentally ill inmates spend at least 20 hours outside of their cells per week. McDonald said inmates in L.A. only get about half that.

The county agreed to beef up mental health care inside the jails as part of a legal settlement with the ALCU last year. The Sheriff is also in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice, which has called conditions for mentally ill inmates unconstitutional.

Apart from next year's budget, McDonnell had asked Supervisors to immediately allocate $2.1 million to set up a new "bureau" to oversee the quality of mental health services in the jails. That was on Tuesday's agenda, but they postponed the decision. They'll take up that proposal in two weeks.

Next year's proposed budget sets aside $10 million for a yet-unreleased plan to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in L.A.'s jails. District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who's leading the working group on that topic, is expected to present details on how to accomplish that to the Board of Supervisors in June. 

The budget proposal would also provide $162.7 million for jail improvements, including refurbishing the shuttered Mira Loma jail.

One thing the proposed budget does not include: body cameras for deputies. McDonnell said they're not ready yet. The department recently completed a pilot program.

"We are going through the assessment process to see which of four platforms will work best for this organization," he told the board. "As you know, across the country, there is an outcry for increasing the number of body worn cameras."

He did not provide an estimate for when he intended to outfit his deputies with cameras, but said its inevitable.

HIV testing and Laura's Law

Other smaller, but significant funds could be set aside for:

If adopted, the 2015-16 the budget calls for hiring another 1,304 county workers, bringing the total to 106,807.

Hamai, the interim CEO, told the board of Tuesday there are other fiscal issues on the horizon that must also be addressed, including pensions, retiree health, capital improvements and technological infrastructure.

The proposed budget is lower than the county's actual spending last year, but initial budgets generally grow before they're approved.  

Budget hearings are expected to begin next month. The Board of Supervisors must approve a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.