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Jail Inmates Freed Early to Save Money

Times Staff Writers

To save money, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is releasing an average of 130 criminals a day from jails after they have served only a fraction of their sentences, a windfall to convicts that police, prosecutors and judges say is undermining the local justice system.

Rather than shrink street patrols, Baca said he is trying to counteract multimillion-dollar budget cuts by releasing inmates early -- more than 47,500 in the last year. Those freed include robbers, car thieves, stalkers, drunk drivers and abusive spouses.

With some offenders serving as little as 10% of their sentences, criminals now seem to prefer jail over community service. Petty criminals know they will be back on the streets in less than a day. And judges complain that they no longer decide punishment, jailers do.

“It’s not uncommon for a defendant to be released before the judge even gets home for dinner,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia M. Schnegg, who sentences misdemeanor offenders at the criminal courts building downtown.

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Although early releases are mostly restricted to nonviolent offenders, county Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said they had a “collateral effect” in the battle to fight crime. Without proper punishment, he said, the efforts of police, prosecutors and courts are reduced to a system of “catch and release.”

“If defendants believe they will not serve much -- if any -- time, they certainly are not deterred from going out and committing crimes,” said Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, whose office handles misdemeanors.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Baca’s early release of convicts undercuts the LAPD’s so-called broken windows strategy, which is based on the notion that punishing lesser offenses leads to reductions in major crime. The LAPD last year increased arrests for misdemeanors by 12% over 2002, taking 12,500 additional people into custody.

“Increasingly, if you do the crime,” Bratton said, “you’ll be let out to do the crime again.”

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Baca said he had little choice.

“I am handcuffed, straitjacketed by the budget of this county,” said the sheriff, who runs the jails as head of California’s largest law enforcement agency.

The jail system houses 17,500 inmates, about 70% of whom are awaiting trial. People convicted of crimes with maximum sentences of a year are housed in jail. Nearly all felons are sentenced to state prison.

Baca frees the inmates based largely on the seriousness of the crime and how much jail space is available. Drug offenders, vandals, car thieves and embezzlers are being released after serving 10% of their sentences. Others, such as stalkers, spouse abusers and people convicted of vehicular manslaughter generally serve from a quarter to half their sentences.

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Over the last two decades, early releases by the Sheriff’s Department to relieve jail overcrowding have been common. But the large number of such releases in the last year -- the first time the reason has been to save money -- is unprecedented for the department.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Wesley, who supervises the county’s criminal courts, said the practice dilutes the court’s authority.

“As a judge,” he said, “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to any individual I sentence.”

Ruth Martinez, for example, was arrested for shoplifting $855 worth of merchandise from the Robinsons-May department store in North Hollywood. A judge ordered the first-time offender to jail for six months, including the 31 days she had already spent behind bars. The 18-year-old was released eight days later.

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Other offenders are released early then rearrested on new charges.

Jon Turitz , 46, of Encino was arrested less than a month after a Van Nuys judge ordered him to serve six months in jail for beating up his 83-year-old stepfather. Turitz was sentenced Aug. 21 and was released from jail five days later. He was rearrested Sept. 16, and now faces drunk-driving and hit-and-run charges.

During the 1980s, convicts were released early because of overcrowding in Los Angeles County jails. The county added 4,000 beds to the system, among the nation’s largest, and from 1998 until last April inmates served their full sentences.

In 1988, U.S. District Judge William P. Gray gave Sheriff Sherman Block -- Baca’s predecessor -- legal authority to release as many prisoners as needed to control overcrowding. Baca is now invoking that power.

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In the last 11 months, he has authorized the early release of 2,231 spousal abusers, 2,016 people driving without a valid license and 1,683 drunk drivers, according to sheriff’s statistics. Nine hundred seventy-two inmates who committed assaults with deadly weapons were released early, as were 682 robbers, 442 people convicted of battery and 253 auto thieves, department statistics show.

Baca estimated that over the last two fiscal years he has lost $166 million, or about 10% of his $1.7-billion yearly budget. He has proposed a half-cent increase in the local sales tax to generate an estimated $500 million a year for law enforcement, including the LAPD.

Despite their frustration, Cooley and others are sympathetic to the budget constraints faced by local government.

“All of us are confronting a severe cutback of resources to do the job,” Cooley said. “Public safety is suffering because of inadequate funding.”

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In response to the early releases, judges and prosecutors are trying unusual methods to punish criminals.

Darren Wies pleaded no contest to possessing and transporting rock cocaine and heroin this month. As a condition of his plea bargain, he agreed to spend 30 days in jail and then return to court for his formal sentencing.

“He’ll go in, do the 30 days, come out, get drug treatment and be sentenced upon release,” said prosecutor Dmitry Gorin. “This way we know he is going to serve his time.”

In another case, Vahan Shahenian, 23, will be ordered by a judge next week to serve 25 days at a local municipal jail -- where inmates pay for their own incarceration -- and complete 400 hours of community service. He pleaded no contest to felony vehicular manslaughter in the death last year of a 78-year-old motorist.

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Defense attorneys and their clients, meanwhile, are happy to exploit the system. Some minor offenders are eager to plead guilty to their crimes with the prospect of early release.

County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said the early releases were a “necessary evil” created by rising costs and finances pared down by the state budget shortfall.

Authorities say other law enforcement agencies in California are closing jails and releasing inmates early to save money.

“I think cops on the street are everybody’s priority, not a misdemeanant who’s going to get out anyway,” Janssen said.

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That is little consolation to Sheriff’s Chief Charles M. Jackson, who authorizes the early release of criminals.

“I spent 30 years arresting these people,” he said. “Now I spend my time letting them go. It grates on you.”

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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