County Pays Money to Inmates Held Too Long

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With dozens of inmates being locked up too long in county jails because of a continuing barrage of embarrassing paperwork problems, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has started a jailhouse sweepstakes of sorts: Deputies have been handing out checks--ranging from $150 to $8,000--to some of the most put-out prisoners.

In an effort to take the sting out of several impending class-action lawsuits, the county jail's version of the prize patrol--risk managers standing at the door of the Inmate Reception Center to make financial settlements with departing prisoners--has paid out $26,000 so far this year to about 30 inmates who were held an average of 17 days beyond their court-ordered release dates.

The move is designed to save taxpayers money by paying off inmates before they are contacted by several local civil rights attorneys--including Stephen Yagman--who have filed or are considering filing lawsuits that could result in far larger awards on behalf of the over-detained prisoners. (Last year, one long over-detained prisoner filed suit and received an $85,000 settlement before trial). The payouts preclude inmates taking further legal action.

The payouts also are a tacit acknowledgment that the Sheriff's Department is still struggling to fix its antiquated inmate tracking system, which has led to the over-detention of nearly 200 inmates so far this year, according to department statistics provided to The Times under the California Public Records Act.

Inmates over-detained between Jan. 1 and April 14 were held an average of nine days past their court-ordered release dates. The payouts have not been offered to all over-detained prisoners, nor have all who have received offers accepted them.

"If the department recognizes its errors early on, it ultimately will be cheaper and better [for community relations]," said Merrick Bobb, the County Board of Supervisors' special counsel investigating problems in the Sheriff's Department. "I think [the payouts] are an acknowledgment that there is a problem and a good-faith attempt to deal with the consequences of it."

Sheriff's Department officials said they had no comment because of the pending litigation by the civil rights attorneys. "As you know, we are under a lawsuit and our attorneys are advising us not to get too much in depth in discussing this thing," said sheriff's custody chief Barry King.

Sheriff's brass have said in the past that they are troubled by the problems and are trying to overhaul the paperwork filing system at the Inmate Reception Center, where clerks labor late into the night sorting and filing thousands of documents.

The filing process--which also has led to the erroneous early release of dozens of inmates over the past few years--is so archaic that deputies call it the "Pony Express." Large yellow bags--crammed with handwritten court orders--are literally tossed from the sheriff's inmate buses after they arrive at the jail from court each evening.

Although some of the 200 over-detentions this year arose because the sheriff's clerks simply could not keep up with the paperwork, most were the result of human error, according to the department's statistics. In one case, a clerk entered the wrong case number for an inmate who was scheduled to be released. In another, a clerk misplaced the file jacket for three days.

James Owens, a deputy county counsel who works as a legal advisor to jail officials, said the Sheriff's Department tries to release inmates by midnight on the day that the clerks receive the release orders. But sometimes that's difficult to accomplish.

"You've got to remember that a stack of court orders comes in with a whole bunch of bodies at the end of the day," Owens said. "There's a real crunch to get things done."

The list of 197 over-detained prisoners provided by the Sheriff's Department only included those held at least two days too long.

Sheriff's officials have said they intend to link new computers in the jail with computers being installed in the county's Superior and Municipal courtrooms, which will eventually solve the problem.

"It's not the kind of thing where you walk in and you put up a couple of Apple computers and start working away," Owens said. "It's not going to be solved overnight. But it's something they're committed to doing."

In the meantime, the risk management money is the best the department can offer to inmates who feel they have been wronged.

On average, the 30 inmates paid for doing extra time received checks for $870--about $59 per day per prisoner. Among the inmates receiving cash are a man who was over-detained for 90 days (he got $500) and another man who was kept 60 days too long ($2,000).

There is no set amount for how much each inmate receives, officials say. Factors taken into consideration in settlements are lost earnings and pain and suffering. Someone who is unemployed and homeless usually will receive less than an inmate who has a job.

Kevin Baxter, 31, who was arrested earlier this month on a possession of marijuana charge, was held in jail for three days past his release date.

After his mother repeatedly called jail officials to complain, clerks sent a member of the risk management team to meet with him in his cell.

"They took me right out of the cell and wanted to give me $100," Baxter said. "I told them that wouldn't cover all my heartache. I had to sleep on the floor in the jail chapel. I didn't even get to sleep on a wooden pew. I don't mean to sound greedy or nothing, but they're trying to get me cheap on $100."

Baxter--who refused to sign the agreement, which would have precluded him from suing--said he hopes to hire an attorney to get "at least two grand."

Indeed, the civil settlements in court cases are almost inevitably larger. Last year, the payouts in lawsuits and claims averaged more than $1,300 a day per inmate. One former prisoner, Juventino Ibarra Miranda, received $85,000 for being held an additional 98 days after he was ordered released on his own recognizance by a Superior Court judge in connection with drug charges.

Even after the charges were dropped, Miranda was not let out for more than a month because a clerk in the Inmate Reception Center confused his booking number with that of another inmate.

Miranda's attorney, Miguel F. Garcia, said he is considering filing a class-action lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department that would force it to cease over-detaining inmates.

"If it's widespread, we need to do something to correct it," Garcia said.

Yagman has filed a lawsuit demanding that the sheriff release exonerated inmates directly from court, instead of returning them to jail where they're held for days. He filed a class-action suit in federal court on behalf of a man who was held three days past his release date.

"This nonsense has been going on for years--as has been the other nonsense of [Sheriff Sherman] Block erroneously releasing persons charged with and/or convicted of serious crimes," Yagman wrote to the Board of Supervisors. "The government just can't continue to hold in custody persons against whom charges have been dismissed. It's really as simple as that."

It is a matter that also troubles John C. Burton, another civil rights attorney who is considering taking legal action on behalf of several over-detained inmates.

"Everyone I've told about it is just aghast," Burton said. "The Sheriff's Department thinks it's OK to hold inmates for another 24 to 36 hours . . . false imprisonment."

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