Los Angeles County houses the largest jail system in the country. More than New York, more than Cook County in Illinois. As such, any problem experienced in the 57 other counties of California can easily be magnified tenfold in Los Angeles County, home to more than 9 million people.
Earlier this year, amid allegations of prisoner abuse among the rank and file in Los Angeles County corrections, the woman who used to oversee all of California’s state prisons and parolees was brought in to be Sheriff Lee Baca’s right hand woman. In March of this year, Terri McDonald accepted the position of Assistant Sheriff of Los Angeles County.
California Forward had the opportunity to sit down for a candid one-on-one with Asst. Sheriff McDonald recently and we are presenting a distilled version of this dialogue in hopes that our readers gain an appreciation for both the complexity of public safety realignment and the rigors of implementing it properly and cost-effectively in such a massive county.
Here in Part 2, she discusses her decision to come work for L.A. County and the challenges she has faced since joined early in 2013.
So tell me how you came about to become the Assistant Sheriff in L.A. County, and what your first four months on the job has been here, and what sort of challenges working in a county the size of Los Angeles County has presented you.
I have been working with L.A. County for a long time since my period when I was the Associate Director of Reception Centers. I tried to innovate on ways to make things easier and streamlined processes between two very large systems. Then realignment came along and I was down here working with Probation, Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Association responding to legitimate concerns they had about coordination between the State and just trying to make things smoother.
Also had been kind of monitoring what had been going on in the papers relative to the allegations earlier this year. When I was contacted by folks from L.A. County asking whether or not I’d be interested, it was very hard for me to make the decision to leave Corrections, an organization that I grew up in and loved to come to a system I didn’t know. But I thought, not many people get to say that they oversaw the largest prison system, state prison system in the nation, and the largest jail system in the nation as well.
It’s an opportunity where I could learn, right? Because I’ve never run the jail system. So I could learn about how jail systems work, how they coordinate with state prisons and probation and courts and all of that. So it was a learning opportunity for me. I like reform. I like complex problems. I like big projects. This seemed ripe for reform. The Sheriff had been going through jail reform efforts for a couple of years before I got here. There was a Jail Violence Commission report that the county was implementing, so it was an opportunity for me to come in and learn from that and join with that.
I had a substantial role in Public Safety Realignment and I wanted the opportunity to come and implement some of the things I had thought about and talked about, in my prior role. As well as work on some of the major challenges that Realignment has created for the County and its jail system. So to come in, and put my money where my mouth is, see what I could do to help.
Because the state prison system, while they’re still fighting with federal courts, they’ve still got challenges, they’ll always have challenges, but many of the challenges that were the State prison system in the 20+ years I was there, have now transferred here. I learned a lot from my prior role.I learned how to maneuver within that, some of the things that work and some that don’t. I can bring that experience here.
You get to hit your ball and then go out and catch it yourself.
Right, right. It’s fascinating and I made some assumptions that weren’t accurate. I made assumptions for example, about classification of jail offenders. The State prison system has a classification system that is very dynamic. Inmates come in, they get classified, there’s lots of opportunity within the prison system because there’s lots of prisons and lots of yards within prisons. So you have the ability to deal with a very diverse prison population. Remember inmates come from every category in America into prison, and they don’t always get along. They don’t have the same needs.
The state prison system has a pretty complicated system to do that and inmates get re-classified routinely, based on their behavior and time, and all that. So their movement is very dynamic. Jail systems don’t have, at least this jail system doesn’t have that dynamic classification system. Nor do they have the time to do the type of classification the state does. The state takes 60 to 90 days to classify somebody. L.A. County has to classify them in 24 hours. So they come in the door but the county doesn’t have the experience or resources to do a really dynamic re-classification system like you need with realigned inmates. They didn’t need it before.
For the most part they were serving short sentences. The longer sentences went to state prison. So classification, for example, is an area that I didn’t have a firm understanding of and frankly, the staff here, need to have a better understanding about how to create a dynamic system. So it’s really twofold.
When you say ‘classification as it pertains to realignment,’ this is figuring out which programs will best suit an individual, figuring out whether they need substance abuse treatment or if they have a mental health disorder, or if they are one of the more dangerous ones, right? Obviously there’s a lot more minutiae involved with realignment and the money that you get for all the evidence-based programs.
Right, and prisons have correctional counsellors right? So prison has a person whose job it is to do a risk and needs assessment, whose job it is to do a case plan on them, whose job it is to place them in a program based on that need.
And if that fails then everything else down the line fails, right?
Well it makes it problematic. Working with the staff here to expand, because we are doing risk and needs here but it’s in a limited way, there’s not abundant resources for us to do that. So how do we target populations? How do we do a risk and needs? How do they place them in the program? It’s way more complicated than the state because over half the population is not sentenced. So we’ve got them, we responsible for them while they are here, we want them to program, but they may be in a program today and they are released tomorrow.
Is that the rough number of pre-trial in L.A.?
It’s about 55 percent in L.A. County.
This may be stating the obvious but I imagine that any problem that any other county has, in California, is magnified tenfold in Los Angeles county.
It’s on steroids.
Just the sheer size and scope of everything.
Yeah, the size and scope. Every day there’s 1200 to 1500 inmates going out. That’s larger than most other county entire populations. About 180,000 inmates are coming in and out the door every year, right? So that’s just a lot of movement in and out the system. Things like homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, it’s a really, really, really challenging issue in this county. It may not be as prevalent in some of the counties where folks aren’t drawn to that. Because it doesn’t have as many resources, it’s not an urban environment. Urban environments do tend to draw more homelessness, more drug…
I’m not saying the other counties don’t have a problem, because they do. But I just think they, like I said before, are on steroids here.
Start walking on Sixth Street, east of Main down here and you’ll start to get an idea.
Yeah the social challenges for L.A. County, and it’s a big geographic county too. It’s not as though it’s, say, San Francisco County where everything is pretty contained in one area. So you’re much more able to deal with people coming in the door and how you re-enter them. Here they can be part of any community. And that community may or may not have abundant resources, it may or may not have transportation readily available, it’s all pretty complicated. But it’s not as big as the state.
But as far as counties go.
Well it’s the biggest jail system in the nation right? Followed by New York and Cook County.
You touched on this earlier, 55 percent is the pre-trial population, what are the opportunities there? What can we be doing better as far as the pre-trial population in realignment goes?
I think the opportunities are there to really evaluate the use of risk assessment tools and who is maintained in the jail. But it’s really important to understand it’s hard to get in L.A. County jail to begin with. 63 percent of the felons in L.A. County, arrested felons, are managed through probation to begin with. Misdemeanants, there’s no misdemeanants in the jail, with the very, very small exceptions of those who may have a hold, immigration hold, or felony hold or may be incompetent to stand trial. So it’s hard to get in here anyway. So it tends to be a little riskier population at the front end than you might find in some county jails, that are able to take in everybody who gets arrested. That’s not the case here.
A lot of people are placed on their own recognizance when they initially have a law enforcement contact. Or they go to the local jail, they just don’t make it in here. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not opportunities to take a look at other ways to manage the pre-sentenced population who end up showing up lower risk on an evaluation.