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Public Deserves Answers About Jail Overcrowding

Why is L.A. County renting out beds to the INS?

March 23, 1997

Sometimes a fix for one problem invites a related headache. That has certainly been the case for the beleaguered Los Angeles County jail system. The county Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Sherman Block and other members of the county's criminal justice system ought to be ready to debate solutions to one particular serious problem. Not surprisingly, there has been no indication yet of preparedness.

The problem involves the Sheriff's Department's disastrously administered work release program, designed to let county prisoners work--and live--outside the jails. Far too many were released, often without even a cursory assessment of whether they were flight risks. It turns out many were and simply skipped out of the program and returned to the streets.

The necessary fix? Round up the fugitives and be far more discriminating in choosing which inmates get into the work release program. The inevitable headache? Rounding them up and putting them back in jail contributes to overcrowding in the 10-facility county jail system sufficient to exceed the standards of a 1987 court-ordered population limit. Up to 2,000 inmates too many. As a consequence, the American Civil Liberties Union is talking about taking the matter back to the courts to force the jail population down. This is a Catch-22 of the county's own making.

Jail overcrowding is not rare. Orange County has been under a federal court order for two decades to limit overcrowding in its jails and now releases about 1,000 inmates early each month to make room for new prisoners. Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates says at least 4,000 new jail beds are needed.

But Los Angeles' problems are on a different scale, and here is where things get complicated.

Are there beds in the system to handle the overflow of inmates? Perhaps. Are those beds being used for overflow? Not quite.

Block has long claimed that his budget is fat-free. That has been disputed amid evidence that the budget is rife with wasteful spending. An audit of the Sheriff's Department is still in the works. This audit is important because the sheriff claims he can keep the brand-new Twin Towers jail open only through complicated lease arrangements with the state and federal governments. For example, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service is renting space for 500 prisoners at the county's Mira Loma facility. The county also wants to rent 1,400 more beds to the state; this deal has yet to be approved.

The public is justifiably confused and concerned over the fact that federal and perhaps state prisoners will be taking up space that could be filled with local prisoners to ease county jail overcrowding. That public concern could skyrocket if it turns out that the county decides it has to release more of its own prisoners prematurely to reduce overcrowding.

The public will want to know why the Sheriff's Department contends that its huge $1.1-billion budget isn't sufficient, necessitating lease arrangements for federal and state prisoners. The public deserves answers. Sheriff Block, the supervisors and officials from the rest of the county's criminal justice system should come up with some soon.

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