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COLUMN ONE : Crime Overloads L.A. Justice System : Many suspects are never prosecuted and small crimes are often ignored. A yearlong jail sentence actually means 155 days or less.

JUSTICE IN DISTRESS: The Devaluation of Crime in Los Angeles. First in a seven-part series. Next: The decline in police service.

December 16, 1990|DAVID FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crime is choking the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.

Numbed by rising violence and overwhelmed by drug offenses, the system routinely gives short shrift to all but the most serious crimes.

Police often take hours to respond to burglaries and other property crimes, if they respond at all, and most of the cases are never investigated.

Prosecutors trade guilty pleas for lesser sentences for nearly every crime, including homicide, rape and robbery.

Judges regularly grant probation to habitual narcotics dealers and other repeat offenders who, by law, should go to prison.

Sheriff's officials release inmates months early from the county's overcrowded jails, where felons serve less time than they would in nearly any other large American city.

Probation officers rarely, if ever, see tens of thousands of the convicted criminals who are supposed to be actively supervised.

"We are fooling the public," said Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. "They think because everybody talks tough, that the system is tough, but the system won't allow us to be tough."

With more crime than they can handle, detectives have become more selective about which cases they actively investigate. With more suspects than courtrooms, prosecutors have become more selective about which cases go to trial. And with a limited number of cells in the county jail and state prisons, many judges have become more selective about who should be put away--and for how long.

As veteran Deputy Dist. Atty. Norman J. Shapiro puts it: "Look at the courts. They're filled up with murders and rapes. Who cares about somebody stealing a $1,500 stereo?"

Virtually every community in America is struggling against crime. But in Los Angeles, where law and order have been glorified in countless movies and television shows, crime has forced the justice system to make one concession after another.

A nine-month study by The Times found:

* While Chief Gates has declared publicly that casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot," his own department and the district attorney's office have an agreement that has allowed hundreds of small-time "crack" cocaine dealers to dodge potential prison sentences and instead be charged with a lesser crime. This happens because hard-pressed police criminalists do not routinely conduct the laboratory tests needed to distinguish crack from ordinary cocaine when dealers are arrested with relatively small amounts of the drug. The agreement even applies when dealers sell crack directly to undercover LAPD officers.

* Los Angeles police officers are arresting people in record numbers for the worst crimes, but a higher percentage of suspects are being released without ever going to court. Though the number of adults arrested for so-called Part I crimes--homicide to larcency--climbed by more than 50% in the last decade, a greater percentage of suspects were prosecuted in 1980 than last year, according to police records. In 1980, for instance, 55% of those arrested for rape were ultimately charged with rape or lesser crimes; last year, that rate had dropped to 28%.

* Deputy district attorneys routinely offer defendants shorter sentences for pleading guilty when accused of serious crimes, despite a California law intended to restrict plea bargaining in such cases. Of more than 1,800 randomly selected felony cases examined by The Times, 98% were settled with accused criminals agreeing to plead guilty rather than face trial. Of those cases, 3% ended in defendants going to prison for maximum terms. "It's a settlement system," said presiding Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Richard P. Byrne. "It is not a trial system."

* Crimes that would be filed as felonies elsewhere in California commonly end up being treated in Los Angeles as misdemeanors--lesser offenses with usually lighter penalties. Suspects, for example, who shoot into inhabited dwellings without killing or wounding anyone face only misdemeanor charges as a matter of practice. "The joke around our office," said City Atty. James K. Hahn, "is that if you're a good shot, it's a felony; if you're a poor shot, it's a misdemeanor."

* Many crimes prosecuted as misdemeanors elsewhere are simply ignored in Los Angeles. The city attorney, as a rule, will not file charges against accused shoplifters unless the value of the goods stolen is more than $10. People who rent movie videotapes and never return them generally need not fear prosecution unless the value of the tapes exceeds $400.

* Criminals on probation who are arrested for attempted robbery, burglarizing businesses and other felonies deemed low priority increasingly are not charged with those crimes. Instead, many are accused only of violating terms of their probations. The tactic, judges say, is intended to ease jail overcrowding and reduce court caseloads. Critics, however, call such cases "freebies" because the defendants go unpunished for their new crimes.

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