County weighs its own inmate handoff

Los Angeles County officials are exploring an unconventional solution for handling the prisoners the state is passing off to them: passing them off to someone else.

By year’s end, hundreds of criminals who would have done their time in state prisons are expected to go instead to county lockups as part of the governor’s plan to thin the population in California’s chronically overcrowded prisons.

Taking some of those inmates and shipping them out again is being considered as a last resort, county officials said. But it’s being taken seriously enough that county staff have been seeking outside advice on the idea, and a team of sheriff’s officials recently took a trip to the San Joaquin Valley to scope out a potential lockup.

L.A. County jails have faced hitting capacity before, resorting to early release and other solutions for shedding prisoners, but never before have inmates been housed out of the county.

Asked whether he could think of any other county that has done so, state Sheriffs’ Assn. President Mark Pazin said, “No, never, and I’ve been doing this for 30-plus years. We just don’t do that.”


It would also undermine one of the much-touted arguments for Sacramento’s plan to divert state inmates to local jails -- that keeping criminal offenders closer to home and their family and friends gives them a better shot at rehabilitation.

“Oftentimes, individuals lose support when they’re taken far away,” said Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Receiving visits from loved ones is said to keep inmates motivated. And prison rehabilitation programs are often tailored to each region’s unique problems. For example, Hidalgo said, programming in parts of Northern California may be more oriented toward drug rehabilitation, while those in Los Angeles would more strongly emphasize gang issues.

But Lt. Wayne Bilowit, a Sheriff’s Department lobbyist, rejected the notion that keeping inmates close to home was a primary rationale for the governor’s “realignment” plan.

“In theory, yes, that’s one good thing, they’re closer to home,” he said. “But this is all about [the state] easing off their prison population crisis.”

Many of the inmates expected to be housed by the county face sentences of 90 days or less. Nonetheless, if housed in state prisons, they would be required to go through lengthy -- and costly -- health and gang-affiliation screenings. The state, which is expected to provide funding to the counties for these new inmates, still expects a net savings from realignment by cutting out the intake screenings.

Bilowit said the message from Sacramento has been to “put them wherever you need to put them. Just don’t send them back to us.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore downplayed the possibility that L.A. County inmates will be sent away. It hasn’t been ruled out, he said, but inmates would be relocated only under extreme circumstances because, among other reasons, Sheriff Lee Baca does not want to lose control over those inmates’ rehabilitation programs. Options such as electronic monitoring, home detention and work release would all be preferable, Whitmore said, to sending the inmates elsewhere or releasing them into the community early.

“If you characterize it as ‘no,’ ‘possible’ or ‘probable,’ it’s ‘possible,’ ” said Lt. Mark McCorkle of the sheriff’s custody support services unit.

Aides for the county’s supervisors recently met with state officials about their experiences contracting inmates out to “community correctional facilities” -- low-level lockups that are run by local governments but have catered to state inmates. For these facilities, which are losing their flow of inmates from the state, scoring new clientele from counties may be the only way to stay afloat.

The facility looked at by the Sheriff’s Department is in the town of Taft, about 30 miles from Bakersfield and more than 100 miles from L.A. One sheriff’s official said the group that checked it out was “pleasantly surprised” by the lockup.

Any contracts to ship off prisoners would be issued by the Board of Supervisors. Anna Pembedjian, the justice deputy for Supervisor Michael Antonovich, said her office would be inclined to outsource inmates rather than release them early.