LOS ANGELES, Calif.–The Board of Supervisors agreed today to hire an independent consultant to analyze the need for new county jails, putting a nearly $1 billion proposal to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail on hold for at least another 60 days.

Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka submitted a plan he characterized as “a comprehensive approach that combines long-term facility improvements … and programmatic alternatives that can potentially divert low-and medium-security inmates from incarceration.”

Its centerpiece is the development of a new jail–estimated to cost $933 million–to accommodate high-security prisoners and inmates with medical issues. It would replace the downtown Men’s Central Jail, the first phase of which was built more than 50 years ago.

Sheriff Lee Baca has been pushing the board for new facilities since at least November 2011, when he presented a $1.4 billion proposal for construction of a downtown and a women’s jail.

But the board chose to postpone discussion of the county’s options once again, as Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Gloria Molina recommended hiring an outside consultant.

“The CEO’s long-delayed proposal failed to answer critical questions on the future needs of the jail system,” Antonovich said. “A comprehensive plan–not a piecemeal approach–is required for an informed and fiscally prudent decision.”

A consulting firm will conduct its own review of existing facilities, profile the inmate population, project the need for jail beds for at least the next 30 years and look at various funding sources.

Civil rights activists have been arguing for months that the county should shift the dollars it plans to use for jail construction into community-based social services, to reduce the number of inmates and prevent the newly released from committing more crimes.

But as county staffers look at community-based services, adult day reporting centers, pre-trial release programs and other alternatives to incarcerations, the jail population is growing. Diversion of low-level
offenders from state prisons under realignment has resulted in more inmates and longer sentences. And a federal court ruling dictates that the county reduce jail overcrowding.

Advocates have particularly focused on the population of women in county jails. More than 2,400 of the roughly 18,000 county inmates are women, according to board documentation.

Diane Zuniga of Californians United for a Responsible Budget urged supervisors not to build a proposed “women’s village” and instead look at alternatives to custody for women who are non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders.

The tabled jails plan proposes housing 1,156 women prisoners at either the Mira Loma Detention Facility, vacated Nov. 27 by federal immigration officials, or the Pitchess Detention Center.

The jails debate is taking place during continuing review and reform of Sheriff’s Department policies and procedures to address widespread allegations of deputy-on-inmate violence and recommendations by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.

One of the most visible changes has been hiring Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, a former state corrections official, to run the jail system.

McDonald, who spoke at today’s board hearing, said she’s been monitoring local reforms even before officially coming on board. Changes have “been moving forward at a meaningful pace,” she said.

The board’s vote to hire a consultant was unanimous. A report back is expected in 60 days.