Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has waged a long, misguided effort to withhold information about his department’s cooperation with immigration officials and the demographics of his jails. His justification for refusing to release the material in response to a request under the California Public Records Act comes down to this: A federal contract preempts any state law requiring disclosure.
He’s wrong. The sheriff should hand over the data.
Baca entered into an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to check on the immigration status of jail inmates. But that’s a contract, not a free pass that allows him to ignore state laws. Baca knows this because a state judge said as much last year when he rebuffed the department’s request to toss out a lawsuit brought by immigration advocates, noting that Baca failed to identify any reason or exemption that shields him from his obligations under the law.
The National Immigration Law Center and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which filed the lawsuit to obtain the information, are trying to determine how many illegal immigrants were held in the county jails between 2004 and 2011, for what reason and for what length of time. Releasing that information would pose no threat to public safety and intrude on no legitimate privacy interests.
Moreover, preliminary data released by the sheriff as part of the lawsuit suggest that undocumented immigrants were held for an average of 17 days longer than legal residents facing the same criminal charge, according to the day laborers organization. That’s troubling given existing jail overcrowding, and that problem is likely to grow worse under AB 109, the state law that transfers responsibility for most newly convicted nonviolent offenders from the state to the county. An estimated 7,000 new inmates are expected to arrive in the coming year as part of prison realignment.
Whether the sheriff should be holding illegal immigrants at all isn’t the issue, at least in this lawsuit. Rather, the questions are whether those undocumented immigrants who are held spend far longer in custody than required and at what cost to taxpayers. It’s time for Baca to release the records that will help answer those questions.