At a skyrocketing pace unmatched anywhere in the nation, tens of thousands of inmates are literally walking out the back doors of Los Angeles County's overcrowded jails after serving little or none of their sentences behind bars.
Worse yet, thousands of criminals--as many as one in four, according to a survey undertaken by The Times and the city attorney's office--commit new offenses within months of their early releases. If not for jail overcrowding, many would still have been behind bars at the time they committed the new crimes.
The average convict these days serves less than 25% of his sentence before being released by the Sheriff's Department--a record-breaking low that amounts to roughly half the time he would have served four years ago.
Court officers and criminals alike say the early releases of inmates--including a massive "work release" program in which convicts spend their nights at home rather than in jail--have become a joke.
"How do you take the system seriously?" said Carlos Yamada, 23, who was placed on work release by the Sheriff's Department immediately after being sentenced to 90 days in jail over his eighth arrest for driving with a suspended license. "The lesson I've learned every time I've been here is that no matter what the judge says, I can rely on the county jail system to take care of me."
As jail overcrowding has worsened, the Sheriff's Department has taken on a crucial role that it was never intended to hold: serving as judge and gatekeeper by determining when each convict will be back on the streets.
Horror stories abound:
A drifter attacks two men in Hollywood with a knife but is freed from jail after serving only a fraction of his sentence. Within weeks he assaults his girlfriend and allegedly embarks on a cross-county killing rampage that leaves four dead.
A convicted child molester who likes to expose himself to young girls is released from jail without posting a penny of his $500,000 bail and disappears two months before he is due back in court for sentencing. He is still on the lam.
A hot-tempered Rowland Heights man beats up his pregnant 16-year-old wife, then reportedly threatens to kill her as he is carted off to jail. Set free after five days of a 30-day sentence, he comes after her with a shotgun and makes good on his deadly promise.
For every headline-grabbing criminal, hundreds of garden variety crooks with the most direct impact on day-to-day life--burglars, wife beaters, drunk drivers, child abusers, drug dealers--also go virtually unpunished.
A three-month review by The Times found myriad ways that the system undermines efforts to protect the public:
* After closing four jails in three years, the Sheriff's Department now has 20% fewer beds than in 1991--leaving room for 5,239 fewer inmates behind bars each night. Offenders are doing far less time than in other major metropolitan jail systems. The situation has grown so dire that Sheriff Sherman Block predicts that he may no longer have room for any inmates sentenced to county jail by the end of the year, with most jail beds filled by defendants awaiting trial for possible state prison time.
* Most defendants awaiting Municipal Court trials are released on their own recognizance and sent back on the streets--no matter what the bail set by judges. Many never show up in court to face charges. Only recently, after urging by judges, did the Sheriff's Department amend its policy to provide that such defendants, if rearrested, be locked up pending trial.
* The jail system has taken on such an "Alice in Wonderland" quality that some judges face the specter of defense attorneys requesting jail time for their clients--instead of fines or lengthy stints on probation--because they know that the defendants will be freed without strings in short order. Some exasperated prosecutors acknowledge that they have begun seeking lengthy court continuances in order to keep certain felony defendants in jail longer while awaiting sentencing.
* Once sentenced to county jail time, most inmates--even those convicted of felonies that could land them in state prison--qualify for work release. They are assigned to job sites along freeways or in community parks and government offices and are allowed to spend their nights at home. On any given day, more convicts sentenced to jail are out among the public than are behind bars. Yet as attractive as this arrangement may seem for inmates, thousands have ditched the program.
* The early release system is rife with confusion, with many prosecutors and judges are unclear just how little time convicted inmates actually serve. The Sheriff's Department has failed in some instances to follow its own written rules, freeing inmates who should have stayed in jail weeks more, according to department statistics.