Jail Math : Early Releases Add Up in Favor of Men Doing Time for Misdemeanors

Times Staff Writer

Ted Peal knew the time would come when he’d have to serve the 14 days in jail.

He had known it since the judge sentenced him last spring after the cops arrested him right in front of his house for driving under the influence.

And this week, when the time came--well, something had changed.

Time. Time had changed. Math had changed. Einstein was right--it was all relative. The 14 days in County Jail was no longer 14 days. On Tuesday, it was barely 14 hours, and that included the bus ride down from Lancaster.


And Peal, 38--sometime musician, martial arts expert, herbalist, you name it--hadn’t even needed to change out of his plaid shirt and jeans into a jail jumpsuit.

“The 14 days are cleared with the single day,” said Peal, a free man with the pink paper to prove it. “That’s neat. That’s cool. I suppose everybody who goes in there gets happy about it.”

More men are coming out of jail nowadays, and more of them are smiling. Early kick-outs, they call them informally--beneficiaries of a new criminal arithmetic, the math where crowded jails plus too many inmates equals no room, where a sentence of a month in jail really is a day because you can’t divide space for 22,000 by 100,000 inmates.

And so, since last May, the crowded jails have forced the Los Angeles County sheriff to this: more and more of these men, convicted of misdemeanors and sentenced to as much as 33 days in jail, have found that means they serve only one day.


By the horrific criminal standards established in Los Angeles County by the likes of Charles Manson and Angelo Buono, these fellows are pikers, small-time cutpurses and rum-pots.

But naturally, some of them think even a day in jail too harsh.

Charles Holland, nursing a fading black eye, had just finished up a few days in jail for drinking in a park, and as far as he’s concerned, “Anybody gets 30 days hasn’t done anything wrong or real serious.” It wasn’t like that back in Detroit; here “they pick people up for jaywalking tickets.”

Peal had read about this early release business and showed up all prepared: no junk in his pockets, no belt. He really wasn’t grateful when a friend pressed a dollar in his pocket. He didn’t want to have anything to surrender or reclaim, nothing to slow up his processing. “Just check in and out” was his plan, he said.

So what about this kind of law, where time is elastic and a day is marked down as two weeks? “As far as I’m concerned, I hate to say anything non-supportive of this country or be unpatriotic,” Peal said, “but justice is a word you can spell any way you want to.”

Jose Ponce of Huntington Park could have spelled it “bargain.” Instead of a $742 fine for traffic warrants, he took the time--and a 20-day sentence became not quite 48 hours.

Ponce, 20, has been in there before; he knows the math and was not so foolish as to believe that a 20-day jail sentence really meant 20 days. Eight, 10 maybe, like last time. But he was out and on the way home less than 48 hours after he went in. He had just settled in and boom! “The next day they call my name, I rushed to the window . . . I wasn’t gonna argue with them.”

All day Tuesday, they drifted out--Peal, Ponce, 18-year-old Des Pena, with a zoot-suiter tattooed on his right bicep, a bare-breasted woman on his left, and a scar like a tracheotomy mark where some kid knifed him three years ago. Last time he was in, it was for six months. This time, it was two days, for taking somebody else’s Toyota truck for a ride, he said. Two days was not even long enough to change into a jail jumpsuit. “I smell like a dog,” he said fastidiously, in white T-shirt and low-slung blue pants.


2,000 Bused Daily to Court

Each day, about 2,000 of the men inside are bused to court. Another 600 or 700 are let out--some of them on early release. On Monday night, more than 1,000 new offenders were booked. The early release seems hardly to make a difference in the flow.

For Peal, something else remains to satisfy the demands of the law. There is the community service he must perform at an animal shelter in Lancaster next door to where a prison is being built.

The guys at the County Jail--most of their stuff is nothing, Peal said. “Everybody asks why are you here? Are you a mean guy, or is it some small-time crap?”

But prison--now, that’s different. “That’s the big-time stuff. The big house, as Edward G. Robinson would say.” And by then, it’ll be goodby Lancaster for this Arkansas boy: “I intend to be out of there by the time that’s done.”