With 61 arrests to his name--actually, to his 10 names--John Thomas Davis is the kind of criminal most people want out of their neighborhood and behind bars.
"A threat to the community" is how a 1993 probation report described Davis and his habitual dope-dealing, addiction, thievery and other offenses. His "lengthy and significant history of criminal activities and antisocial behavior . . . speaks [for] itself."
Not loudly enough. Five months ago, and eight more arrests after that warning, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department returned him to society--courtesy of a little-noticed but far-reaching work-release program that let him serve his sentence outside a jail cell. Not surprisingly, Davis--like so many before and after him--skipped out.
"For all these arrests and his horrible record . . . you're telling me the Sheriff's Department made the decision that he should go out on work release?" said an incredulous Deputy City Atty. Andrea Yee, who prosecuted the case. "It doesn't accomplish anything."
At a time of massive jail overcrowding, Davis' case demonstrates the flaws in one of the Sheriff's Department's broadest responses: a program that in recent years has allowed tens of thousands of inmates to spend their nights at home and their days, ostensibly, at public work sites, picking up street litter, washing police cars and the like.
Documents obtained by The Times in a public records lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department reveal that the work-release program is in disarray. Often without a rudimentary examination of criminal histories, the Sheriff's Department has routinely placed violent and repeat offenders back into the community within days of their convictions--with little more than a promise they will show up at their assigned work sites.
Once freed, documents show, vast numbers vanish.
As of Dec. 2, there were 1,915 work-release inmates listed by the sheriff as "noncompliant." Many have long lists of prior convictions and continue to commit crimes while on the lam, according to a study by the city attorney's office and The Times. Some 40% have been fugitives for at least a year.
Sheriff Sherman Block says this should never have happened.
Although work release offers a viable way to ease jail overcrowding, Block said, he was upset to learn after inquiries from The Times that the program has been poorly run, resulting in the release of many convicts who "never should have been let out."
"I believed the standards [for work release] that were set several years ago were being adhered to," Block said in an interview. "And they weren't."
The sheriff also insisted he was unaware that inmates were being placed on work release without a thorough check of their criminal histories--"contrary to the directive that I gave."
The sheriff said he has now ordered tougher rules that in recent days have slowed the number of inmates being given work release. Asked who is responsible for the widespread deficiencies, Block said: "I'll find out if I can."
During the last few years, the work-release program has mushroomed as the county jails have become overcrowded with violent suspects awaiting trial on charges that could send them to state prison. As a result, the department says, it has been compelled to offer work release to inmates already convicted of crimes that, for the most part, are generally less serious.
"The best scenario would certainly be to have everybody in jail, but we don't have that option," said the sheriff's custody chief, Barry King, who oversees work release. Despite a compliance rate of only about 65%, King said, he considers work release "more successful than a failure."
Still, asked whether the public should be worried by the high numbers of fugitives, King said: "Certainly they'd be as concerned as I am. . . . I'm very concerned."
So are many others, including the supervising Superior Court judge of the downtown criminal courts.
"It is clearly a public safety threat if you have someone at the control valve and their clear motivation is a question of how many inmates [can fit] in the County Jail," Judge James A. Bascue said. "Public safety may be lost in that process."
The judge concluded: "I don't know what county time means anymore."
Bascue and other judges say the state-authorized program is run so autonomously by the Sheriff's Department that jurists often are unaware that sentences they hand down are being altered--to the benefit of convicts like David Ramirez.
A drug dealer and reputed 18th Street gang member, he was arrested in August 1995, charged with selling heroin to an undercover cop.
Within a week of being placed on work release, Ramirez participated in a beating that left a 15-year-old near death with nine stab wounds to his buttocks, lung and kidney. Ramirez, who laughed about the unprovoked attack in court, was convicted of assault and sent to state prison for six years.