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L.A. Jail Work Release: a System Egregiously Awry

It’s good to hear that Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block has issued tougher rules for the inmate work release program, as reported Sunday in The Times. But to say that his interest in this matter should have been piqued a bit sooner would be too kind.

Work release programs around the nation operate in various ways. Some require inmates to work on the outside during the daytime but report to some sort of incarceration facility at night. Others, such as that of Los Angeles County, allow inmates to spend their sentences entirely outside of jail.

Most of us have certain ideas about how such programs should operate: that they should be well-supervised by all elements of the criminal justice system, including prosecutors and judges; that only nonviolent, nonhabitual offenders should enjoy the work release privilege, and then only if there is clear proof that they are somehow tied to their communities and do not pose a risk of flight.

Corrections experts might call strict adherence to such standards naive; the public most assuredly would not. Of course, jail and prison overcrowding in many parts of the country lead to mistakes and unwelcome compromises. But the situation in L.A. County seems to have gone egregiously awry. Perhaps the belated, partial opening of the county’s Twin Towers jail, which Block announced Friday, will ease some of the pressure on the system. But the problem clearly runs deeper than that.

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The facts: Some violent and repeat offenders are released back into their communities within days of conviction, with little more than their promise that they will show up at assigned work sites; no thorough check of criminal histories, like an inquiry done in Orange County, is performed; the compliance rate is only 65% among inmates given work release; only relatively meager attempts are made to rearrest those on the lam. The numbers of walkaways are substantial. As of Dec. 2, there were about 1,900 fugitives from work release, nearly half of them gone for a year or more.

Moreover, it appears that judges and prosecutors were seldom consulted on who should have been given work release. That has led James Bascue, supervising Superior Court judge of the downtown criminal courts, to call for a state review.

It is no stretch to argue that a violent offender who flees work release is as potentially dangerous as one who escapes a jail or a prison. But in the case of the latter, the public is warned. In the case of the county work release program, The Times had to sue to obtain documents on identities of work release fugitives.

Add in earlier reports of the mistaken releases of prisoners and of inmates being held beyond the terms of their sentences and the sum is a county jail system that is in need of drastic changes.

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