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BREAKDOWN BEHIND BARS / Turbulent Times in L.A. County
Jails

Pay Hikes Fueled Closing of 4 Jails

Budget: Emphasis on patrols, Twin Towers' financing costs also fueled loss of 5,000 beds despite rising revenues.

May 20, 1996|PAUL FELDMAN and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Why did Sheriff Sherman Block close four jails in recent years, losing precious space and sending tens of thousands of criminals back on the streets quicker than ever?

Ask him and he'll place the blame squarely on deep cutbacks in county funding for his mammoth agency. But that's not the full story.

In fact, huge chunks of the sheriff's budget are being consumed by expenses that the sheriff doesn't talk about as much: escalating salaries for the department's nearly 13,000 employees and financing charges for the new--and still empty--Twin Towers jail.

Adding to the equation is Block's decision to emphasize street patrol presence over jailhouse beds.

The Sheriff's Department is slow to acknowledge it, but its total revenues--which also include federal and state funds--have actually increased by 27% over the last five years, to $1.1 billion.

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Still, Block has closed four jails since 1993, sacrificing more than 5,000 beds and returning inmates back to the streets at a faster and faster rate.

Most of the department's $240-million budget increase since 1990-91 has been consumed by the salary increases and employee benefits, granted by the county board.

Since January 1990, in spite of the downturn in the county's economic climate, sheriff's employees have received six salary increases totaling 24%.

The sheriff now spends $170 million more each year for salaries and employee benefits than in the 1990-91 fiscal year. That's almost three times the annual cost to operate the four jails that have been closed since 1993.

Block, while not directly responsible for salary negotiations, has never actively opposed the increases for his deputies.

The sheriff has financed those raises, in part, by closing the jails that some of those deputies had guarded.

County officials "made a mistake when they negotiated those contracts," said sheriff's budget director Fred Ramirez, "because we couldn't afford them."

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The sheriff says that if he had not closed the jails, he would have had to slash the number of deputies on the streets, a sacrifice unacceptable to him and the public. The closures, Block said, helped him to slightly increase patrol positions, by about 200 since 1989.

The irony is that more deputies are making more arrests--only to see the suspects they catch get out of jail even faster.

But Block said it's worth the trade-off.

"Having [deputies] out in the street is a crime suppression," he said. "Fear in this community is very high and the only way that we can impact that level of fear is primarily through law enforcement visibility. . . .

"My No. 1 priority is having people working out in the community [on patrol]--that is what the community expects."

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