200 or more inmates released early from L.A. County Jail

At least 200 inmates received early releases from the L.A. County Jail system this week amid a new round of cost-cutting that is expected to soon slash the time many other criminals serve behind bars.

Sheriff Lee Baca said Thursday that budget cuts have prompted him to reduce the time nonviolent offenders spend in the jails. The sheriff’s policy has been that male inmates must serve at least 80% of their jail time before release. Now, offenders incarcerated for crimes including check kiting, petty theft and drunk driving will serve only 50% of their time.

Baca said he hoped to get back to the 80% standard soon but could not say when.

The inmate discharges began Tuesday. That same day Baca had told The Times in an interview that the department was “still a long way away” from considering early releases.

Thursday, Baca said he had not been informed about the early releases until after the interview. Alexander Yim, the Sheriff’s Department chief who oversees jail releases, said his staff had been discussing the possibility of early releases for some time and had decided to move forward Tuesday without consulting Baca.

“I left it up to my chiefs to decide,” the sheriff said. “My people don’t have to wait for me to say, ‘Oh now, go.’ ”

Early releases have been a problem in Los Angeles County since the 1980s, after a federal judge ruled that overcrowded conditions in the nation’s largest county jail system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for inmates.

Freeing some early was meant to be a temporary fix but has continued ever since, ebbing and flowing over the years.

The practice increased dramatically earlier this decade, when budget cuts prompted Baca to close jail facilities, allowing some inmates freedom after serving only 10% of their time. A 2006 Times investigation found that nearly 16,000 inmates released early were rearrested for new offenses while they were supposed to be in jail. Sixteen were charged with murder.

Over the last few years, sheriff’s officials began reopening shuttered jail areas and lengthening the time inmates served.

But now, amid the troubled economy and state budget crisis, Baca said the department again needs to make major cuts.

The department is trying to reduce its budget by cutting deputy overtime and decreasing the inmate population at the north facility of the Pitchess jail in Castaic.

So far this week, 700 of roughly 1,100 inmates have been moved out of the north facility. Officials realized they didn’t have enough beds at other jails to house the inmates, so they began early releases of those in custody for nonviolent offenses.

The department is considering $128 million in cuts over the next 16 months from its nearly $1.3-billion general fund budget.

Much of the savings -- about $58 million -- would be achieved through reductions in overtime, and Baca said that will inevitably require shutting some parts of the jails.

“You cannot cut dollars from the budget and keep facilities open to the level they were before the cuts,” he said. “At some point, the integrity of the system starts to break.”

This week’s releases bear a striking resemblance to events that began unfolding in mid-2002.

Faced with a severe budget crunch that year, Baca announced he would close portions of the jail system and would carefully screen inmates to determine who could be released early. As the county’s budget woes worsened, however, sheriff’s officials closed more areas of the jails.

Baca said Thursday he remained optimistic that this budget crunch would not be as bad and expressed hope that he would not have to reduce jail times below 50% of an inmate’s sentence.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.