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Assembly Tables $50 Million to Aid L.A. Jails

Budget: Southland lawmakers lead campaign for funds. But Sheriff Sherman Block says it would take millions more to prevent early release of prisoners.


On a day that Los Angeles-area state legislators sought unsuccessfully to allocate $50 million to help cope with the county's spiraling jail overcrowding crisis, Sheriff Sherman Block warned that convicted inmates would continue to be released early unless tens of millions of dollars in addition to the $50 million find their way into his department's coffers.

Citing the imperative need to halt "revolving door" justice, Assembly members Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills) and James Rogan (R-Glendale) introduced an amendment Wednesday to the Assembly version of the state budget, directing $50 million to Los Angeles County to open half of the new 4,100-bed Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles for a full year.

The legislative action, which was tabled by the Assembly, came in the wake of a series in The Times spotlighting problems plaguing the county's jails, where a shortage of beds has resulted in inmates serving less than 25% of their sentences behind bars.

In the last three years, Block, citing budget constraints, has closed three jails containing more than 4,000 beds and was forced to close the Hall of Justice jail, with an additional 1,800 beds, because of earthquake damage. Meanwhile, the $373-million Twin Towers, completed last fall, remains empty because of a lack of operating funds.

"It is imperative we open this facility [because of] the cost of the revolving door," Boland said in Sacramento. "Not only the cost to government, cost of lives, but the cost to citizens who are victimized because these perpetrators are barely out the door before they're committing another felony or another crime."

Boland, who issued a three-page fact sheet, much of which was taken directly from The Times series, said that $50 million would cover the cost of opening one of the two towers, as well as the facility's medical ward, for one year.

That "would reestablish the credibility to the justice system [of Los Angeles County]," she said. "The federal and county government will have to come up with the rest."

The amendment drew bipartisan support from Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). But Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) quickly moved to table the allocation, later explaining: "I don't believe in doing special things for one county. Los Angeles is not the only county in the state that has a fiscal problem."

After afternoon caucuses, the Assembly voted 41 to 30 to table the amendment, thus killing the chances for an immediate bailout.

All Los Angeles County legislators except Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Long Beach) voted with Boland. But Boland said many Republican legislators from elsewhere voted to table the request because they "are so angry at the liberal Board of Supervisors. They feel they mismanaged the money and don't want to help them out."

Block has said his first priority if one of the towers was opened would be to move high-security defendants awaiting felony trials out of the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic to the Twin Towers. Such action would take precedence over expanding the number of available beds in the overall jail system.

At his monthly news conference Wednesday morning, Block went even further, painting a bleak portrait of the future unless up to $60 million in additional annual funds are made available to reopen the three closed jails.

Even if $128 million in operating funds could be found to open the entire Twin Towers facility, Block said, early releases would continue if the other jails remained closed.

"The Twin Towers in and of themselves will not solve the early release problem," Block said. "You know it's not only a case of opening the Twin Towers, it's going to be a matter of really reopening the other closed facilities."

That, Block said, "is the only way that we are going to actually impact the total problem."

Earlier this week, the County Board of Supervisors directed Block to seek proposals to rent any of the closed jails--Biscailuz Center, Pitchess Honor Rancho and Mira Loma--to public or private agencies to house state or federal prisoners. Their aim, like the legislators', was to raise funds to help open a portion of the Twin Towers by early 1997.

Block said he will move forward with the board's orders, but he suggested that if all three jails were rented, convicted inmates would probably continue to be released after serving no more than 25% of their sentences.

"The early release program will, you know, be hardly impacted at all," he said. "Because the high-security [pre-adjudicated] population will continue to grow, and Twin Towers will be housing those kinds of people. So leasing out all three facilities will have almost no impact on early release."

Neither Block nor his top aides returned calls seeking comment on the Assembly's actions.

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