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Sheriff, Board Swap Charges Over Early Release of Inmates

March 04, 1995|CARLA RIVERA and LISA RESPERS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The frequently discordant relationship between Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and the Board of Supervisors erupted anew Friday over Block's decision to release thousands of inmates in response to budget cuts ordered by the board.

The releases result from the planned closure of two jail facilities--the Biscailuz Center in East Los Angeles and part of the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Saugus--that will just about cover the $7.3-million cutback ordered in the department's budget.

The new skirmishing has arisen over whether those cuts really required the early release of inmates and whether the sheriff's intentions were clearly communicated to the board at its Feb. 23 meeting.

The actions have sent officials at the Hall of Administration in Downtown Los Angeles and the sheriff's Monterey Park headquarters scurrying for tapes of the meeting to bolster their respective positions.

Supervisor Gloria Molina on Friday angrily claimed that the board had been blindsided.

"There are five supervisors who didn't understand this would happen, and (sheriff's officials) clearly weren't forthcoming at our last meeting," she said.

She maintains that Block could have cut administrative costs before releasing inmates.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky also said there was some confusion over the sheriff's intent after last week's meeting, at which the board imposed the cuts.

"It was my understanding that he was going to close two facilities. He made that very clear. It was not clear to me it would necessitate any releases," Yaroslavsky said.

The sheriff maintains that his intentions should have been clear to everyone.

"I've been flabbergasted by the reaction to this," he said. "I'm trying to be a team player and I'm being kicked in the butt."

Block added that he had reviewed his tape of the meeting and that "it says exactly what I thought it would say."

The inmates being released are misdemeanor offenders and were within a few days of being let go anyway, Block said, adding that they pose no public risk.

It is not the first time that Block--an elected official who maintains considerable authority over his department--and the board have tangled over budget matters, but the county's worsening fiscal condition has upped the ante.

In past years, Block has threatened to close numerous jail facilities and release thousands of prisoners as the county's budget ax has cut deeper into his department. In one particularly testy standoff in 1993, Block and Molina threatened to haul the county into court over who had authority to close jails.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich defended the sheriff's latest actions but nevertheless said he would like Block to address the supervisors at Tuesday's board meeting to see if there are ways to avoid any further releases.

Meanwhile, outside the Men's Central Jail near Downtown Los Angeles, some of the newly released inmates had mixed reactions about their early departures.

Rick Townson said he was upset about being placed on work detail as a condition of his early release. Without it, Townson said, he would have been a free man in 20 days.

"Now I have to complete 74 days of work release at 10 hours a day by Nov. 11," he said, pointing at his work-release paperwork. "This is kind of bad for me because I could have stayed and I would have been done."

Townson said he was one of several inmates who were told Thursday night that they would be let go early. He was serving a 180-day sentence for drunk driving.

"It's just a money thing," Townson said. "That's the only reason that they are closing."

Anthony Garcia of Long Beach quickly left the jail where he served only five days of his 30-day sentence for driving with a suspended license. He said he had no idea why he was released so early and "didn't ask any questions."

"I am just glad to be going home," Garcia said.

About 200 inmates were released early Friday. By the time the facilities are closed March 15, up to 3,000 inmates could be let go under the sheriff's plan.

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