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63,332 Inmates Were Released Early, Sheriff Says

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Wednesday that chronic budget problems had forced the early release of 63,332 County Jail inmates, many of whom served as little as 10% of their sentences.

“Tens of thousands of these people have not served any form of substantial punishment for their crimes,” Baca said. “What that means is that Los Angeles County and its criminal justice system for low-level offenders ... has been rendered meaningless through the lack of funding.”

Baca called the news conference outside downtown’s Twin Towers jail to ask for public support of Measure A on Tuesday’s ballot.

The measure, which Baca conceived, would increase the sales tax in the county from 8.25% to 8.75% to pay for 5,000 more police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

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If the measure wins the two-thirds vote needed to pass, Baca said, he will quickly end the early release of inmates.

The sheriff began the program in 2002 after the county Board of Supervisors refused to approve a budget increase and he decided to close several jails. That reduced the capacity of the jail system from 22,000 inmates to 17,500.

As a result, the sheriff has released inmates convicted of a variety of crimes, including spousal abuse, robbery, battery, assault with a deadly weapon, drunk driving and car theft. Those convicted of less serious offenses involving graffiti, minor assaults, thefts, vandalism and littering have also been released after serving a fraction of their sentences.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate and Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa said the early releases had to stop. “The Twin Towers has to be more than just a revolving door for criminals,” he said.

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When county officials recently closed the books on the fiscal year that ended in June, the county had $337 million more than expected in its general fund, for a total of $872 million.

Much of the unexpected cash came from salaries budgeted but not spent during a hiring freeze and money earmarked for supplies that were not purchased.

The supervisors decided to spend about $300 million of the one-time surplus to restore aging buildings, build a better emergency communications system, improve services in juvenile halls, and boost wages for healthcare workers who serve the elderly and disabled. They have not voted to provide funds to reopen the jails Baca closed.

Supervisor Don Knabe said Wednesday that he was “deeply disturbed” by Baca’s decision to release inmates early and suspected that the sheriff could have found other savings in his $1.7-billion budget.

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Rather than releasing prisoners, Supervisor Mike Antonovich said, Baca should have applied political pressure to Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky to spend more for law enforcement. Antonovich opposes Measure A.


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