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Paperwork Snafus Keep Hundreds in Jail Too Long

Inmates: Man held 98 days after release was ordered won $85,000 claim. Sheriff's officials blame archaic system.

November 02, 1996|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Still reeling from the embarrassment of mistakenly releasing 35 Los Angeles County Jail inmates since January 1995, Sheriff's Department officials now say they also erroneously held more than 500 prisoners for too long during the last two years.

In many cases, prisoners ordered released by the courts have been kept behind bars an extra three to five days. In rare cases, inmates have been mistakenly detained for a month or longer.

As with the accidental release of prisoners charged with crimes ranging from homicide to burglary, sheriff's officials blame the overlong detentions on the sheriff's archaic system for processing paperwork.

Cases dealing with inmates who have been held past their release dates can prove costly. Civil settlements in court cases filed by prisoners held too long have resulted in payouts averaging more than $1,300 a day.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 7, 1996 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Jail inmates--An article Saturday's Times incorrectly stated that Juventino Ibarra Miranda, who was held 98 days too long in Los Angeles County Jail, was represented by a public defender. He was represented by an attorney from the Alternate Public Defender's Office, a county-funded program set up to handle cases where a conflict of interest is declared by the Public Defender's Office.

One inmate, Juventino Ibarra Miranda, was recently awarded $85,000 for being held an additional 98 days after he was ordered released on his own recognizance by a Superior Court judge in connection with drug charges. Even after the charges were dropped, Miranda was not let out for more than a month because a clerk in the Inmate Reception Center confused his booking number with that of another inmate.

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On Friday, Miranda--who was let go in March after his fiancee finally was able to convince officials that they had made a mistake--picked up his restitution check from his lawyer.

"I tried to tell them to let me out but they ignored me," said Miranda, 28, who speaks only Spanish and has a speech impediment. "They told me to shut up.

"'My fiancee was in the courts investigating, urging them to let me go. They finally found the error."

If all prisoners detained too long over the past two years filed and won similar suits, the cost to the Sheriff's Department could soar beyond the $2-million mark.

It is a prospect that troubles sheriff's officials.

"We would love to get the inmates out within 24 hours," said Sheriff's Chief Barry King. "But we have 200,000 coming into the system each year. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to minimize the importance of this. . . . It's a very serious concern to us."

Under state law, the county must free inmates who have been ordered released within a "reasonable" amount of time--usually 24 hours, said Roger Grambo, principal deputy county counsel.

But "with a jail this large," Grambo added, "there are some people who get held 48 hours over. There are just too many people to get processed. There are some who slip through the cracks. Sometimes, the paperwork gets messed up."

Grambo said there is no set amount for how much each claimant receives. Factors that are taken into consideration in settlements are lost earnings and pain and suffering, he said.

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"A homeless person suffers much less damage than a businessman who loses 150 to 200 bucks a day or more," Grambo said. "It depends on the situation."

Since January 1995, the county has paid $164,163 to nine people--ranging anywhere from $313 to Miranda's $85,000 settlement. There are nine claims pending, including that of an inmate who says he was held 30 days past his release date.

Those who have collected against the county in the past two years include:

* A man who was being held on robbery charges and then was ordered freed. He was paid $4,000 after he claimed he was held in error one extra day.

* An inmate charged with receiving stolen property. He was paid $5,000 after he was erroneously left in jail one day too long.

* A grand theft suspect, who was jailed two extra days. He received $400 in compensation.

The data were made public at the request of The Times. Last week, the department disclosed that it had erroneously released 35 prisoners--among them several homicide inmates--over the past two years. Nineteen remain at large, including Gregory Stinson, a murder defendant mistakenly let go Oct. 10.

Like many of the mistaken releases, the over-detentions occurred when clerks in the jail's document center--struggling to process more than 2,000 documents a day--input the wrong information into the computer system, King said.

Another problem, he said, is that clerks cannot process the massive volumes of paperwork quickly enough.

The paper system is so outdated that sheriff's deputies refer to it as the "Pony Express." Large yellow bags containing thousands of documents are literally tossed from the sheriff's inmate buses after they arrive at the jail from court each evening.

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About 30 clerks labor late into the night, sorting, inputting and filing the paperwork, which is often hard to read and understand. Sheriff's officials say they intend to link new computers in the jail with computers being installed in the county's Superior and Municipal courtrooms.

In the Miranda case, a jail clerk mistook his booking number for that of an inmate awaiting transportation to state prison on a car theft conviction.

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