(294785)

A proposal to close Men’s Central Jail within one year drew fire this week from residents worried about the public safety ramifications and cheers from advocates of diversion for people accused of low-level crimes or suffering from mental illness.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of a proposal co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl directing an existing task force to map out what would be required to close a antiquated and dilapidated facility that even Sheriff Alex Villanueva called a dungeon.

The original vote was 4 to 0 because of technical problems that prevented Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas from answering a roll call. However, he later asked to be recorded as an aye vote.

Solis noted that the jail population countywide has been reduced by roughly 5,000 people, largely through efforts geared toward reducing the spread of COVID-19. That includes a zero bail schedule for low-level offenses, the release of many pretrial defendants and the early release of inmates with little time left to serve.

“We have made … tremendous progress,’’ Solis said. “This motion before us seeks to open up a serious and committed conversation about what it would take to close Men’s Central Jail in one year. The frequent reports back will … allow us to gain more insight into all the difficult and complicated pieces necessary to necessary to achieve the outcome that I believe all will strive for.’’

Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked that the task force led by the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Health Services’ Office of Diversion and Reentry seek input from local police chiefs. She also asked that the task force gather a long list of data on inmates to inform its decision, including age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental and medical health issues, crimes committed and eligibility for diversion.

Barger said she doubted that the county could get enough community-based resources up and running within a year to support the closure of Men’s Central and emphasized that services for high-need inmates were not available in other county jails.

“I don’t know that we can get to a level where we can close this facility without a replacement,’’ Barger said. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that not everyone can be diverted. Those who remain in custody are worthy of meaningful treatment.’’

She said some statements about diversion were misleading.

“Diversion alone is not going to take away from the need to have a replacement facility,’’ Barger told her colleagues.

Most of the residents who were given an opportunity to speak during the one hour allowed for public comment were strongly opposed to closing the jail, though Solis said the vast majority of emailed comments to the board were in favor.

One resident opposed to closing Men’s Central said the board was too influenced by a small segment of county residents.

“I speak for the silent majority who are busy with their lives and also, in some cases, scared to speak out, but (who) very much care about their safety. But meanwhile, you are hearing mostly from the vocal minority … funded by special interests that would destroy our freedoms,’’ she told the board.

Many opponents demanded that another jail be built in place of Men’s Central and argued that closing the lockup would threaten public safety and remove a deterrent to crime. Some accused the supervisors of living in affluent communities where they could afford to ignore the safety issues.