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

Reforms, Funds Urged to Ease Crowding

Jails: County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky suggests renting closed facilities to raise money. Sheriff Sherman Block says the state should free up funds to open the new Twin Towers.

May 21, 1996|PAUL FELDMAN and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Acknowledging that Los Angeles County's jails are in a state of crisis, public officials called Monday for sweeping reforms and an infusion of funds to help keep convicted inmates locked up longer and to help ease racial tensions behind bars.

The statements came in response to an ongoing series in The Times on escalating problems in the nation's largest jail system, including the early release of tens of thousands of inmates at an unprecedented pace.

"The credibility of our justice system is at stake," County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in an interview. "But just talking about it and beating our breasts is not going to do the job."

Yaroslavsky urged that funds be freed for the new 4,100-bed Twin Towers jail--not yet open for lack of operating funds--by renting to federal or state law enforcement agencies any of four older county jails that Sheriff Sherman Block has shut down since 1993.

The supervisor also called for the sheriff to economize by hiring more civilians to help staff the county jails and suggested that Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti use discretion in filing "three strikes" cases, which discourage plea bargains and keep more high-stakes felony suspects in jail awaiting trial.

Municipal Judge Richard E. Spann, chairman of the county Municipal Court judge's association, called on Block to dedicate up to 5,000 jail beds for inmates convicted of misdemeanors, in part by releasing low-level felony drug defendants who have not yet gone to trial.

"If we have no hammer, no sense of punishment, it's my fear we're breeding the next generation of 'three-strikers' today," Spann said. "When you raise young people to feel they are essentially beyond punishment, you are just exacerbating the problem and will continue it forever."

The Times reported Monday that the average convicted inmate in Los Angeles County currently serves less than 25% of his sentence, a record-breaking low. Moreover, more convicts--including thieves, burglars and even some defendants convicted of firing semiautomatic weapons at other people--spend their nights at home under a flawed "work release" program than are behind bars. About 5,000 inmates were participating in the work release program on one recent day--and an additional 1,700 were on the lam.

City Atty. James K. Hahn called for a task force to examine the deteriorating and racially torn jail system. "What your series has shown is that we have really slid backward in terms of whether or not we have a safe and humane jail system," Hahn said.

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Block on Monday agreed that there is "a crisis" in the jail system as a result of early release of prisoners who commit violent crimes.

"Many of the people who are sentenced to the County Jail could very well be sentenced to the state prison because they've been convicted of felonies," the sheriff said at a news conference.

Block said the main cause of the jail crisis has been a "rape, if you will, of the county budget by the state." He urged that the state free up funds to open Twin Towers.

Gov. Pete Wilson, answering reporters during an Orange County appearance announcing that his administration is providing $387 million for public schools, said of the empty jail: "We have no money to help them. We are sympathetic."

Yaroslavsky, however, pinned some of the financial responsibility on Block for having closed 5,239 jail beds in the last three years.

"I believe in a billion-dollar budget you can always find a $50-million savings without fundamentally affecting your mission," the supervisor said. "Does it make it harder and make people work a little harder? Yes."

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