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Officials Urge Review of Sheriff’s Jail Releases

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several top law enforcement officials, frustrated over disclosures that a sheriff’s jail program has put thousands of serious and habitual offenders on the streets, called on state legislators Monday to reexamine the sheriff’s authority over such policies.

“The sheriff in essence has become the arbiter of what an appropriate sentence should be, and that raises some very serious questions,” said James Bascue, the supervising Superior Court judge in the downtown criminal courts. Questioning the sheriff’s “unfettered discretion” in releasing criminals, he said, “I believe the entire issue should be revisited.”

Bascue and Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn said they believe that state hearings should be convened to answer concerns raised Sunday in a Times investigation, which found that nearly 2,000 convicts were on the lam as of early this month after they skipped out on a work-release program that allowed them to serve their sentences out of jail.

Violent and habitual offenders--convicted of such crimes as drug dealing, assault and armed robbery--have routinely been placed in the program, often without a cursory examination of their criminal histories, the investigation found.

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The Times story was based on documents obtained through a public records lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department. Before the litigation, the department was taking only limited steps to find the work-release escapees. Since then, the department has begun aggressively pursuing them.

“It’s a sad commentary on how the criminal justice system is working in Los Angeles,” said Municipal Judge Stephen Marcus, who heads a court committee on alternative ways to sentence criminals. “What makes it tough for us as judges is the unpredictability factor . . . because we’re never really sure what’s going to happen to someone we sentence.”

Sheriff Sherman Block said last week that he hadn’t realized who was getting out on work release.

Block maintained that some of his past orders on the program had been ignored. But he said the department has begun to enforce tough new regulations to ensure that violent offenders, habitual criminals, long-term drug dealers and other criminals aren’t released.

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But Bascue said too much authority rests with the sheriff.

The sheriff’s reforms will do little good, Bascue said, unless court officers have greater input. “Every judge, every defense attorney, every prosecutor should be aware of what the rules are. . . . Many judges have been sentencing defendants to time in County Jail with the belief that they are in fact serving time in County Jail,” he said.

Massive jail overcrowding has prompted the sheriff to allow about 25,000 inmates over a recent 18-month period to serve their sentences in the community, spending their nights at home and their days at public agency work sites.

One in three inmates simply skips out, Block acknowledged.

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“The thing that was shocking to me,” said Hahn, “was the idea that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t even run the [criminal history] record to find out who they’ve got before they put them out on work release. . . .

“There’s got to be a better way,” he said. “We’re extremely frustrated and disappointed with the way the work-release program has been run. It doesn’t seem like there are any criteria that are set out to determine who is a proper candidate for work release. . . . I think legislative hearings would be in order to see if this is what the legislators intended.”

In 1981, the state gave counties the power to create the work-release program, restricting eligibility to those sentenced to six days or less in jail. Los Angeles led the successful push to do away with that limit, and local sheriffs were given sole authority to decide who gets out. Federal court rulings in Los Angeles also affirmed that power.

Asked about Bascue’s call for hearings, Sheriff’s Capt. Margaret Beard said, “If the judge wants to ask for state hearings, the judge is free to ask for state hearings.”

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There was no immediate response from state lawmakers, who are on recess.

The work-release program will be discussed at a hearing next week before the Board of Supervisors on operational problems at the jail’s Inmate Reception Center.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he will propose that the sheriff and the county administrative office review the program--looking at not only what went wrong, but why the sheriff says he didn’t know about it.

“There’s a communication breakdown that has to be immediately addressed,” he said, “and an aggressive monitoring program has to be implemented.”

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Dan Freifeld, who served on the county grand jury last year and wrote its report on corrections issues, said that if the sheriff believes it necessary to release inmates early, more money should be spent on facilities like the 227-bed, county-run Scapular House in South-Central Los Angeles. It provides drug and domestic violence counseling, education and other services for inmates serving their sentences under tight supervision. Those with day jobs subsidize their own costs and skip-outs are rare, he said.

“I’d love to see this thing expand to a number of houses all around the county with a real eye toward rehabilitation, because this situation is getting chaotic,” he said.

Judge Nancy Brown agreed, saying that there are inherent problems in work release.

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“I happen to be a great believer in trying to educate and rehabilitate these people, but if you just willy-nilly release them and go tell them ‘go to work,’ how many of these people do you think are going to do that?” she asked. “They’re free to walk away. Where’s the punishment?”


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