Jails: Fast Turnover

Surely the word is spreading as fast as though it were being advertised: "Lawbreakers, listen up. Got a couple of warrants hanging over your head? Been busted for drunk driving, petty theft, possession of a couple of rocks of cocaine or some other misdemeanor? Don't worry. The Los Angeles county jails are so crowded that sentences of up to 33 days can be served and satisfied with only one day behind bars." What a travesty.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block has no choice but to release relatively minor offenders early. He must hold the jail population to 22,157 inmates, tops. That's the limit imposed by a federal judge to relieve years of severe overcrowding. At that, the court-imposed cap is nearly double the intended capacity of 13,400 inmates for the entire jail system.

The early releases began last May, with a few days being shaved from short sentences. Since then, nearly 86,000 inmates convicted of misdemeanors have gotten out early. Meanwhile, the number of days shaved off a sentence has grown from 1 or 2 to up to 32. What began as an emergency stopgap solution is becoming a more permanent remedy.

Orange County's main jail also is under court order to control crowding. Last year 43,000 people who were arrested either were turned away or given early release.

Building more bunks behind bars is the obvious long-term remedy. But the best efforts to find new money for jails and to find places to build them when and if the money turns up have failed.

California voters approved a $500-million state bond measure for jail construction, expansion, maintenance and rehabilitation in November. A total of $1.5 billion has been approved for jail construction in four bond measures since 1982. That's a lot of money, but it's not enough to keep pace with the surging jail populations throughout the state.

At the same time, shortsighted county voters failed to provide a two-thirds majority for a $195.7-million local measure for jail construction in Los Angeles. That money was intended for several projects, including a 2,400-bed expansion of the mammoth Men's Central Jail near downtown and the 1069-bed Lynwood Regional Justice Center. Without these additional beds, more inmates--including men accused of more serious crimes--will quickly go free.

Orange County, which needs to double its jail capacity by 1995, also is thinking of asking voters for money to pay for more cells in the form of a half-cent increase in the sales tax.

As things stand today, a man convicted of a misdemeanor and about to start a jail sentence need not give up his civilian clothes and change into a regulation jumpsuit. No matter what the judge intended, the inmate will spend only a matter of hours--just long enough to be fingerprinted, processed and booked--in jail. Meanwhile, the standard 30-day sentence has become just another way of saying freedom .

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