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Justice Denied: A System Under Increasing Stress : Times series reveals the problems--and limits--of law enforcement

Most people in Los Angeles either knew, or could guess, that their lives and property were shielded behind a thin blue line.

Even the ones lucky enough to exist at a comfortable remove from murder or burglary could sense that more and more, living in and around Los Angeles means living dangerously.

But a prodigious amount of digging and analysis by Times writer David Freed now shows just how thin that line is, and how thin the system is that backs up uniformed officers in the work of separating the good guys from the bad guys. More chilling is the inescapable conclusion of the seven-part series: that the system can only postpone disorder, not prevent it. Ultimately, Los Angeles can stop living dangerously only if, as a society, it takes the wise advice of Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block.

Block, increasingly something of a sage with gold- braid rank, says law enforcement does a good job of locking people up, but society needs better than that. The real answer, Block thinks, must come from what he sees as a massive Head Start program that will teach youngsters, rich and poor, “social skills” as part of the process of “establishing a value system.”

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Block correctly points out that institutions other than the police must do the work needed “to break this cycle.” And it will be expensive. But it may well be less expensive than a police force big enough to keep all the bad actors under control and smart enough to know who they are. That would be a kind of occupation force that democracy probably could not survive. Reform also would require more citizens to pay far closer attention to what used to be called civic duty.

Los Angeles ranks behind only New York City and Miami in violent crime. Driven largely by drugs--which account for more cases than all other felonies put together--serious crimes have gone up by half in the last decade. But the ranks of the criminal justice system, from judges to uniformed patrols to prosecutors and police lab technicians, have grown nowhere near that fast. Los Angeles couldn’t afford it.

In only five years, the number of gang members has doubled to 90,000. Of 182 defendants in narcotics cases that turned up in a random computerized Times search, only 3% got the highest sentence prescribed by law.

In another random batch of cases, 98% were settled without trial because the defendant pleaded guilty, often to a reduced charge. That is 6% higher than the national average of cases settled by plea bargaining, or “case management,” as it is called by prosecutors fighting a riptide of fresh arrests.

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Plea bargaining helps hold the system together, but it is often attacked as a road to lenient sentences. One severe critic is Donald Burkes of Bakersfield, whose son, Rick, died in a one-car accident. The driver, charged with vehicular manslaughter, drunk driving and hit-and-run, escaped with a two-year prison sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. “Two years for a life,” Burkes says. “All they care about is the numbers, processing the numbers.”

Under siege, the working parts of the system--courts, prosecutors, police, probation officers, jailers and others--seem to cling together for dear life in a complex web in which no one is really at fault. The frustration mounts.

The strain on the system begins to show when Freed asks such questions as why only 17% of all felons are caught and less than 1% of all felony crimes result in the felon serving a maximum prison sentence. Then police say the judges are too soft. Prosecutors point to police failures to produce hard enough evidence to get convictions. Prosecutors are criticized for plea bargains that let too many suspects spend too little time in jail.

Criminologist Charles E. Silberman wrote in 1978 that expecting police alone to stop criminal violence is “quixotic.” So may be Sheriff Block’s notion of getting back to the basics of civil society. But Los Angeles must make the effort.

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Where L.A. Ranks Sworn police officers per 1,000 population Washington D.C.: 6.8 Detroit: 4.6 Chicago: 4 New York: 3.5 Miami: 2.9 Dallas: 2.5 Los Angeles: 2.3 Seattle: 2.3 Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation


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