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Judge OKd Richie’s brief jail stay, undersheriff says

Times Staff Writer

Sheriff’s officials Friday defended their decision to release Nicole Richie from jail after she served 82 minutes of her four-day sentence for driving under the influence of drugs, saying they informed the judge in the case in advance.

Los Angeles County Undersheriff Larry Waldie said Sheriff Lee Baca went to great lengths to avoid the criticism he received after Paris Hilton was released early for medical reasons, after serving five days of her 45-day sentence. Hilton was returned to jail by a judge and served 23 days.

Waldie said the Sheriff’s Department had “called the judge and got confirmation via e-mail that she be treated like any other prisoner” and be released early.

Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said that he could not confirm the e-mail but that Judge Cecil Mills, director of security for the court, had been contacted several days ago and informed of the department’s intention to process Richie early.

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“The sheriff wants everyone to do 100% of their time,” Waldie said. “Unfortunately, the facilities we have, and the capacity we have as mandated by the federal court, doesn’t allow us to do that.”

Richie reported to the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood at 3:15 p.m. Thursday. After she was processed, sheriff’s officials released her at 4:37 p.m.

Under a federal court order to reduce chronic overcrowding, early release is common. Over the last five years, more than 200,000 inmates have been freed early because of overcrowding in L.A. County jails.

The inmate capacity at the Lynwood facility is 2,070. However, the population today is 2,159, with most of the inmates in holding cells or makeshift areas. Under the department’s early-release guidelines, most nonviolent female offenders sentenced to fewer than 90 days are released immediately.

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On Thursday, Waldie said, 143 people facing charges similar to Richie’s were freed early -- 89 males and 54 females.

For the same charge as Richie’s misdemeanor, Waldie said, “the most anyone would spend in that process would be eight to 12 hours. The most.”

Richie’s jailing was a result of her Dec. 11 arrest by California Highway Patrol officers. She was driving the wrong way on the 134 Freeway in Burbank after using marijuana and Vicodin. After officers spotted her in the carpool lane, she told them she had smoked pot and taken the painkiller. As part of her sentence, the now-pregnant Richie also agreed to serve three years’ probation. She must enroll in an alcohol education program and was fined $2,048.

The jailing of a celebrity can also be a strain on the department, but Waldie said that doesn’t mean the famous are rushed through or, on the other hand, given more punitive sentences.

Still, the episode brought more criticism to a department already under fire for releasing Richie’s “Simple Life” reality TV show co-star, Hilton, before her sentence was completed.

“It is wrong. It sends the wrong message to our youth,” L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich said.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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