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System would change how L.A. County inmates get early release

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is considering a new system for deciding which jail inmates get released early by making predictions about who is most likely to commit new crimes.

The proposal calls for a significant shift for the nation's largest jail system, which currently determines when inmates get released by looking at the seriousness of their most recent offense and the percentage of their sentence they have already served. Officials say the current system has weaknesses because it does not take into account the inmate's full record, including serious crimes that occurred years ago.

Supporters argue the change would help select inmates for early release who are less likely to commit new crimes. But it might also raise some eyebrows. An older offender convicted of a single serious crime, such as child molestation, might be labeled lower-risk than a younger inmate with numerous property and drug convictions.

The Sheriff's Department is planning to present a proposal for a "risk-based" release system to the Board of Supervisors.

"That's the smart way to do it," interim Sheriff John L. Scott said. "I think the percentage [system] leaves a lot to be desired."

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald said at the center of the new system would be a computer program that uses each inmate's criminal history to calculate the chance he or she will reoffend, and release those deemed lowest-risk first.

In addition to making release decisions, the tool could be used to assign inmates to education and treatment programs while in jail, and to decide which are eligible for alternatives to jail such as home confinement.

"It's more sophisticated to look at risk," she said. "It makes common sense to most people."

The department could choose to override the automated risk scores for inmates convicted of certain crimes, but McDonald said it's too early to say whether it would.

The Sheriff's Department has not calculated the cost of the system but hopes to seek bids on the project soon if the Board of Supervisors approves. Because the L.A. County jail system is the largest in the nation, it's difficult to compare it to smaller jurisdictions or state corrections agencies that have used similar systems.

Just as car insurance companies draw on accident data to calculate the risk of someone causing a future crash, law enforcement tools analyze factors that have been shown to have a strong effect on whether someone is likely to reoffend.

Among them are an offender's age, gender and criminal history. For example, younger men with extensive criminal records are statistically more likely to commit new offenses than older women who are first-time offenders.

Many law enforcement agencies — including the L.A. County Sheriff's Department — already use risk assessment tools to decide what programs to place inmates in while in custody. Others use assessments to decide the level of supervision offenders get after their release from jail or prison.

One of the few places in California using risk assessment to decide which inmates get early release is Riverside County, which releases thousands of inmates early each year to comply with a federal court order to reduce overcrowding.

About a dozen staff members are tasked with reviewing the files of newly booked inmates daily to decide who could be released if the jails hit capacity.

They first narrow down potential early releases to those whose most recent crime is nonviolent, and then release those who fall in the lowest risk categories within that group, Riverside County's Correctional Chief Deputy Jerry Gutierrez said. They look at sentenced inmates as well as those awaiting trial.

The staffers look at current charges, criminal history and behavior while in jail, and review court minutes and other documents to rank the inmates most and least suitable for release. In some cases, they also use the results of a lengthy series of personal questions put to the inmates in an interview.

When the jails hit 97% capacity, the staffers compile a list of inmates who could be suitable for release. Each recommendation must go through several levels of approval by supervisors, eventually landing on Gutierrez's desk. Although it's labor-intensive, he said the system helps to ensure that the most potentially dangerous inmates spend more time behind bars.

"We don't want to let anybody out [early]," Gutierrez said. "Every day we have to evaluate who's the absolute best of the worst if we have to release somebody."

Gutierrez said the department is working on getting a system in place to track how many inmates go on to commit new crimes. And it is looking at ways to improve the system, including possibly implementing an automated program like the one Los Angeles County is considering.

The number of early releases in Los Angeles County has ebbed and flowed since a federal judge ruled in the late 1980s that keeping jail inmates in the county's cramped, overcrowded conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The pressure on the jails has increased the last two years with realignment, the California law that shifted the burden of housing many nonviolent felons from state prisons to county jails. Los Angeles County's system is housing an additional 6,000 inmates at any given time under realignment, none of whom are released early.

In part to make room for that population, the department has freed tens of thousands of other inmates early.

Men convicted of nonviolent crimes are generally freed after serving as little as 20% of the time they had left in jail after their sentencing hearings. That's in addition to credits under state law that mean most inmates already serve only half of their sentences. Women convicted of nonviolent crimes are generally freed after serving 10%. Men and women convicted of certain serious crimes, including robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor child molestation, are released after serving as little as 40% of their remaining terms.

The new tool L.A. County is considering would be a streamlined system using data from the California Department of Justice. California's corrections department uses a similar tool to decide how much supervision to give parolees. Washington state has a comparable system to help decide the level of supervision for released felons and how much time can be knocked off their sentences for good behavior.

A follow-up study in Washington found that about 47% of inmates in the highest-risk group returned to prison within three years, while 10% of those labeled low-risk did.

Susan Turner, a UC Irvine criminology professor who helped develop the system California's corrections department uses, said the tool has an approximately 70% accuracy rate in its assessments — similar to the accuracy of other risk assessment systems that include a more involved interview process.

"The tool is not 100% accurate, and that's what many people get stuck over," she said. "No risk assessment tool is 100% accurate.… We're trying to predict human behavior."

abby.sewell@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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