Sidestepping home detention

An inmate walks inside L.A. County's Men's Central Jail. Jailers suspect some inmates claimed to be homeless so they could stay in jail and take advantage of an early release without any supervision rather than spend their full sentences on home detention with electronic monitoring, officials said. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has for years tried to reduce jail overcrowding and the early release of inmates by placing low-level offenders into home detention and work-release programs.

But these programs have largely failed to make a dent, forcing the department to consider more expensive ways to address the problem, such as contracting with other detention facilities to house L.A. County inmates.

The most high-profile program required some inmates to serve out their sentences at home wearing electronic monitors. Sheriff Lee Baca even got special legislation approved in 2007 to allow counties to operate the program. Baca put the cost at up to $20 a day per inmate while county jail costs about $118 a day.

But some inmates quickly concluded that staying in jail for a short stint before being released early was better than spending their entire sentence in home confinement. So they sidestepped the program by claiming they were homeless, with no place they could be confined outside of jail, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Officials suspect that many inmates made the claim so they could stay in jail and take advantage of an early release without any supervision.

"People were gaming the system," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

In response to questions from The Times, sheriff's officials recently acknowledged that the high-profile program was abandoned in late 2010, less than two years after it started. Meanwhile, the early releases have accelerated.

L.A. County officials continue to offer home detention for inmates who volunteer and agree to pay for their electronic monitoring, but the number in that program on any given day has fallen sharply. In March 2010, 225 inmates were on voluntary electronic monitoring, according to department figures. As of Tuesday, the number was 77.

Inmates also have been reluctant to sign up for a similar program in which they are released but must work in a supervised job, usually manual labor. In March 2010, 448 were on the work-release program. On Tuesday, the figure was 204.

"There is a portion of the population that would rather sit on their fanny in jail than report somewhere every day and work," said Sheriff's Capt. Mark McCorkle.

The fate of the home detention and other programs underscores the difficulties confronting the Sheriff's Department as the agency searches for ways to end the early release of inmates, which has been a chronic issue for more than two decades.

The problem has worsened in recent years with the influx of 6,000 inmates under prison realignment, which shifted responsibility for housing and supervising thousands of nonviolent prison inmates from the state to counties. None of those inmates are released early in L.A. County.

Most of the county's other nonviolent male inmates sentenced to 90 days or more are now released after serving as little as 20% of their time. Most nonviolent women sentenced to 240 days or more are released after serving as little as 10%.

Sheriff's officials said they hope to resurrect the abandoned home detention program and build up similar initiatives once they are able to increase the amount of time that sentenced inmates serve in jail.

Whitmore said the department expects to start increasing the jail stays in the next several weeks as the first specially trained inmates are transferred to work at local county fire camps, freeing up jail space. Sheriff's officials plan to place more than 500 inmates in the camps.

Sheriff's officials have also considered contracting with other detention facilities to house L.A. County inmates, but that option is expensive. The city of Taft in Kern County offered to house up to 512 long-term inmates for Los Angeles for at least $60.55 per day for each inmate, according to L.A. County records.

The Board of Supervisors last month agreed to a contract with Taft that would cost up to $75 million through June 2018. But the contract appears to be in jeopardy after one of its three backers, Supervisor Gloria Molina, signaled recently that she plans to withdraw her support.

The county's early releases began in the late 1980s after a federal court declared that the jails' overcrowded conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. A 2006 Times investigation found that nearly 16,000 inmates released early were rearrested while they were supposed to be in jail. Sixteen were charged with murder.

State law allows the Sheriff's Department to release inmates who volunteer to serve their sentences at home under electronic monitoring. Baca persuaded the state Legislature in 2007 to change the law so that jailers could require low-level inmates convicted of misdemeanors to serve their sentences on electronic monitoring at home.

The program had little effect.

The department required that inmates have a residential address and no record of violence, but sheriff's officials acknowledged they overestimated the number of nonviolent, low-security inmates in the jails. Their initial calculations took into account only the current charges inmates were being held on. Once they reviewed the criminal histories of inmates, officials said they found many had serious or violent records that made them ineligible.

Baca had said that the program would help his department place up to 2,000 inmates on electronic monitoring at any given time. Between February 2009 and November 2010, about 1,200 inmates were placed on the program, fewer than envisioned, according to the department.

Whitmore said he did not know how many low-security inmates claimed they were homeless to avoid enrollment in the program.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the county should be releasing inmates who are awaiting trial. Many are in jail because they lack the money to secure bail.

He cited a 2011 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit consulting group, which concluded the county could free up about 700 beds by reducing the time pretrial inmates accused of misdemeanors spend in jail. An ACLU-funded study last year put the number at 1,000.

Other counties, including Orange, San Diego and Riverside, have authorized their sheriff's departments to release pretrial inmates on electronic monitoring, but Los Angeles has yet to follow suit. "It would be an incredibly good idea," Eliasberg said.

McCorkle, who oversees the Inmate Reception Center, said the sheriff favors such an approach but would need the approval of other criminal justice agencies, including the district attorney's office, as well as the Board of Supervisors.

He said the Sheriff's Department is exploring the possibility of releasing pretrial inmates and expanding programs that offer other inmates — including military veterans, people suffering from mental illness and some drug offenders — the chance to serve portions of their sentences outside jail in treatment facilities.

jack.leonard@latimes.com