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Hilton case is not likely to affect others’ sentences

Times Staff Writer

Don’t expect other inmates released early from the Los Angeles County Jail to be thrown back in to serve their full sentences, despite what happened to Paris Hilton.

That’s the consensus among top judges and prosecutors who say there are a variety of practical, political and legal issues that prevent challenging Sheriff Lee Baca’s policy of releasing inmates well before their sentences end.

Many of his colleagues privately applaud the decision by Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer to return the hotel heiress to custody after she was released after spending less than four full days in jail on a 45-day sentence. But judges said the practical realities of jail overcrowding and the fact that judges rarely learn when defendants are released mean there is little they can do to halt the practice.

Court administrators insist that most judges also appreciate the difficulties that confront the sheriff in trying to manage an overcrowded, violence-prone jail system that is the largest in the country.

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“This has been a give and take for the 19 years that I’ve been on the bench,” said Los Angeles County Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger. “There’s occasional frustration among individual judges, but they recognize that we’re both part of a large system ... and at the end of the day they have to make sure that the system doesn’t collapse.”

Lawyers in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, which prosecuted Hilton and sought her return to jail, also warned against viewing the 26-year-old’s courtroom drama as a test case.

In the Hilton case, they said they had a strong legal argument to challenge Baca because the sheriff cited undisclosed medical problems in his decision to send her home with an electronic ankle bracelet. Sauer had specifically ordered the sheriff not to release her early or to allow her to go home on electronic monitoring.

But in the vast majority of early releases, the Sheriff’s Department cites overcrowding concerns as the reason. The department has freed inmates early for nearly 20 years under a federal court order that requires it to relieve overcrowding.

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City prosecutors said they were reviewing whether they could ask the federal court to add guidelines to the order that would ensure that more dangerous offenders serve more of their time. Until then, they said, Baca has the final word on who can be released and when, despite what state judges say.

“The federal order trumps anything that a state court can do,” said Jeff Isaacs, chief of the criminal branch of the city attorney’s office. “We’ve debated it internally for quite some time: Is there anything that a judge can do to make sure that a certain class of offender can stay in longer? And the answer is no.”

Los Angeles County jails have been releasing inmates early off and on for nearly two decades. The most recent wave of releases began in 2002, when Baca said a budget crunch gave him no option but to close large portions of the jails.

Since then, the department has released more than 200,000 inmates early, including some who later committed murders and other serious crimes when they otherwise would have been behind bars.

Sauer sentenced Hilton to jail after she violated the terms of her probation on an alcohol-related reckless driving conviction. The judge made it clear that Hilton was not to be released early or allowed to go home with electronic monitoring. The Sheriff’s Department released Hilton despite initially saying she would serve at least 23 days, after reductions for good behavior were factored in.

On previous occasions, jail officials ignored orders from judges to keep particular inmates in jail for their full sentences.

Judges rarely hear when someone they have sentenced to jail is released because the Sheriff’s Department is under no obligation to notify them.

But in Hilton’s case, Sauer and city prosecutors learned of her release not from jail officials but from the news media’s coverage of the heiress’ case.

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“Celebrity cases by definition are different from the run-of-the-mill cases,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former prosecutor. “I wouldn’t expect judges to be doing this on a regular basis.”

Sauer declined to comment for this article.

His actions have struck a chord with other judges, many of whom complain that early releases undermine the integrity of the justice system, effectively leaving sentences in the hands of jailers.

“I think that he hit a nerve among judges, and I think that what he did was a positive thing,” said Superior Court Judge David M. Horwitz.

Some judges with small caseloads might try Sauer’s approach in individual cases, he said. But Horwitz noted that jail -- rather than prison -- is where minor offenders are generally sent, and he said few judges are likely to keep up with the actual jail time each of those defendants serve.

“It’s hard for me to think that there are that many judges who send people to County Jail and get that involved in their cases,” he said.

Hilton’s return to jail has also sparked debate among prosecutors over whether her case could be used as a precedent to keep sentenced inmates locked up for longer periods.

“I never thought Paris Hilton would ever be a topic of debate for us,” said Mike Webb, the city attorney for Redondo Beach and president of the Los Angeles County Prosecutors Assn.

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He said members discussed the case at a recent meeting. Though some believed it could help, he said he remained skeptical.

“Until we get the sustained political will to build enough jail and prison capacity ... we’re going to have those problems,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney expressed similar doubts and said prosectors in the office had no plans to examine the hundreds of thousands of cases in which inmates have been released early to determine whether any should be returned.

“We think they should all serve their time, but there is no precedent,” said Jane Robison. “This is one judge and one case.”

But Tom Higgins, a county prosecutor, said he hoped Sauer’s order might prompt others on the bench to take a tough stand.

He said Baca might be vulnerable on legal grounds because he chose to shut down jail sections rather than save money elsewhere, thereby creating an “artificial problem of overcrowding.”

“I hope that other judges will protect their constitutional authority to protect sentences rather than let it be usurped by the sheriff,” said Higgins, who runs the Los Angeles County district attorney’s criminal filings division. He said he was not speaking on behalf of his agency.

Judges, however, have traditionally been unwilling to engage in a legal standoff with the sheriff, no matter how much they privately grumble about the releases.

Some judges have sidestepped the releases by endorsing plea deals that kept defendants in jail for months before their sentencing. But few have challenged the sheriff publicly.

Court administrators have helped keep angry judges from publicly criticizing the early releases, according to internal Sheriff’s Department correspondence. In a 2005 e-mail to a top jail official, Sheriff’s Chief Richard J. Martinez, who ran the department’s court services division, wrote:

“Overall, the court has been cooperative with our release policy in that the presiding judge has worked hard to keep the judges from voicing an opposing opinion of the release policy with the media.”

There are practical reasons for judges to maintain good relations with the Sheriff’s Department. The courts rely on the department to provide security and drive jailed defendants to and from court.

“It’s always been the case that the Sheriff’s Department and the judiciary has a very symbiotic relationship,” said Jean Rosenbluth, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor. They “generally look the other way when someone does something the other doesn’t like because they depend on each other.”

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this report.


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