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Cell for Rent : The municipal jails in Covina and Azusa have become popular among first-timeoffenders who pay to stay there rather than serve time in crowded County Jail.

September 03, 1987|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

It is rather cramped, offers no view and even lacks private toilet facilities. It rents for $75 a night, which includes meals--as long as you don't mind frozen dinners.

But the tenants aren't about to complain. The place is booked every weekend for the next four months, and the proprietors can afford to be choosy about their clientele. The guests include drunk drivers, shoplifters and the occasional drug dealer, but the management has a strict policy against violent felons.

Although it may not rate four stars, the Covina municipal jail has become popular among first-time misdemeanor offenders who believe that spending their weekends there beats doing time in the County Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

"Most of the ones I interview certainly seem willing to spend the $75 a day to do their time here," said Capt. Charles Wooten, who initiated Covina's "rent-a-cell" program in May, 1986. "Most of them don't have any firsthand knowledge of County Jail, but they've heard stories."

While the Los Angeles County Jail is bursting at the seams with more than 17,000 prisoners, the Covina municipal jail almost never reaches its capacity of 20 inmates, Wooten said. The Azusa jail, which began a similar court commitment program at about the same time, is even less crowded and often has vacancies in its four-man "rental" cell.

"County Jail--it just stinks down there," said Thomas Nuckolls, 20, who was serving an eight-day sentence at the Covina jail for driving with a suspended license . "It's a lot easier and a lot more convenient to do it here. . . . I'd been to County Jail once before on a traffic warrant and had too much hassle down there. . . . The other people and the gangs down there. It's really bad."

"You hear about all the overcrowding and the problems they have down there," said Nuckolls' cellmate, Bob, who asked that his last name not be used. He was serving 48 hours for driving under the influence. "I've never been there, but I've heard the stories, and this is a hell of a lot better alternative. This is more convenient, it's no hassle and it's worth the money."

Besides having fewer prisoners, municipal jails boast that they house a higher-quality criminal because of stringent screening.

"We won't take anybody with a drug problem or a history of violent behavior," said Sgt. Jim Glancy, who oversees the Azusa municipal jail's court commitment program. "We'll take people on alcohol-related (offenses) like drunk driving, but not if they're dependent on alcohol."

When sentencing people who have been convicted of misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies, judges usually let municipal jailers decide which offenders may occupy their cells.

"They're basically looking for middle-class or otherwise respectable defendants who are charged with low-grade crimes," said Gregory O'Brien Jr., presiding judge of the Citrus Municipal Court in West Covina. He said judges often tell offenders: "Check it out with Covina or check it out with Azusa and see if they want you."

Wooten said he got the idea of handling court-committed prisoners from a similar program operated by the Redondo Beach Police Department. At the time, Covina police officials thought it was ridiculous that nonviolent offenders were being sent to the overcrowded County Jail while their own cells went unused most of the time.

"We looked at it and said, 'Here's a twofold thing: It gives a person an alternative to County Jail, and in our little way we're helping to relieve the overcrowding in the county jail system,' " Wooten said.

"My intention was to start with the local court and branch out from there, but it just started to snowball. Pretty soon, I was getting calls from people convicted in Lancaster, Long Beach and Antelope Valley."

In the 15 months since Covina began renting one of its five cells, 238 low-level offenders have occupied its cozy confines for sentences ranging from 12 hours to 45 days. The Azusa municipal jail has rented cell space to 98 offenders this year.

From a judicial standpoint, sentencing a first-time offender to a municipal jail accomplishes the punitive goals of incarceration without unduly exposing otherwise law-abiding citizens to the criminal element.

"They need the shock of being behind bars and having their freedom taken away," O'Brien said. "They don't need to have their safety threatened."

Housing prisoners is usually a heavy financial burden, but "rent-a-cell" programs have made it a source of revenue for some cities. Wooten said the $75-a-day rental more than covers the additional cost of putting up the county's inmates.

"We already have full-time jailers," he said. "We have the space. The only added cost is the food."

Since its inception, the program has generated $51,900 for the city's general fund, Wooten said.

A significant limitation to the municipal jail program is that it is not open to women. Neither the Covina nor the Azusa jail has separate facilities for women, as required by law to keep female prisoners overnight.

"I know the demand is there, because I've received a lot of calls from women," Wooten said. "I don't think we ever will (house women) because I don't think we have the money available to do the remodeling we'd have to do."

Wooten said that if more local police departments open their jails to low-level convicts, overcrowding in the county jail system could be stemmed significantly. However, O'Brien stressed that a sentence in a municipal jail is not appropriate punishment for most offenders.

"You're talking about otherwise respectable citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of the law," he said. "I regret to say they're probably in the minority. I think if you go down and look at the 17,000 inmates down at County Jail, you'll see very few who fit that profile."

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