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Problems Still Plague County Jails, Report Says

May 06, 1997|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite efforts by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to patch up its trouble-plagued jail system, custody officials continue to struggle with an antiquated system that has "been unraveling faster than [it] can be fixed," according to a report released Monday.

Attorney Merrick Bobb, a special counsel appointed by the Board of Supervisors to monitor the sprawling law enforcement agency, found that it has made positive strides but is still facing an unceasing series of vexing issues--including chronic over-detention of inmates and inadequate care of mentally ill prisoners.

In his seventh semiannual report to the board, Bobb requested that the supervisors and the Sheriff's Department implement a host of reforms.

Among them:

* Work with the Probation Department to expand the county's electronic monitoring program and conduct risk assessments of inmates allowed out on work release, a program that previously let tens of thousands of convicted prisoners out of jail early without even cursory reviews of their criminal records.

* Significantly increase the number of mental health staffers specifically trained and willing to work in the county jails.

* Implement a countywide inmate tracking system, consolidating timely and accurate data from the courts, the district attorney and local, state and federal databases.

Although some of Bobb's requested improvements are already in the works, such as turning over some work-release responsibilities to the Probation Department, he said it is "too early even for guarded optimism."

"All we can say is there is finally movement, and some individuals in whom we have trust and confidence are applying themselves to the problems," wrote Bobb, who worked on the report with a team of lawyers, a sociologist and a psychologist. "The jails will continue to receive our intense scrutiny."

"There are some very positive things in the report and there are some things that Mr. Bobb has pointed out that we have to work on," said Undersheriff Jerry Harper. "We are always willing to look at ways we can improve."

Although Bobb expressed concerns about the county jails, he praised the department for its efforts in other areas, including a decline in litigation involving police brutality.

Since 1992, Bobb said, the department has experienced a 70% drop in pending police misconduct lawsuits, lowering the potential bill to taxpayers by about $30 million.

"Five year ago, we said that the [Los Angeles Sheriff's Department] had too many officers who resorted to unnecessary and excessive force and that the department had not done an adequate job of disciplining them nor dealing adequately with those who supervised them," said Bobb, who served as general counsel to the 1992 county investigation that detailed incidents of brutality in the department. "Today it has fewer such officers."

But he said department officials could still be tougher in disciplining problem officers. Bobb said he was troubled to find that in some instances deputies accused of inappropriate behavior received little punishment.

For example, a deputy at the Mens Central Jail was accused of kicking the wheelchair of a paraplegic inmate, causing the prisoner to fall on his face and the wheelchair to fall on top of him. Although the department determined that the deputy's actions were unwarranted, the guard was suspended for just one day.

"We were troubled to find a number of cases where a slap on the wrist was imposed for serious misconduct," Bobb said.

Bobb also encouraged the department to more actively control the behavior of off-duty deputies.

He referred to a lawsuit in which an intoxicated off-duty deputy was accused of shooting and killing a man during a bar fight. In that case, decided late last year, a jury ordered the county to pay $750,000 in damages to the victim's family.

"The LASD's off-duty policy needs tightening, especially at the perilous intersection of weapons and alcohol: An off-duty officer should be required at minimum to lock the gun in the trunk of the car before clouding his judgment with alcohol."

In his report, Bobb said he found a disturbing incident involving a suicidal inmate who was scheduled to be moved to an inpatient ward after trying several times to hang himself with bedsheets. Although the man was put in a cell near a camera, the deputies later discovered that the video equipment was not working. Unbeknown to jailers, the inmate hanged himself with a bedsheet.

"It is hard to understand that a man who three times has attempted suicide by hanging himself with bedsheets is time and again left in cells with bedsheets," Bobb said.

Bobb also criticized the department for a barrage of over-detentions, erroneous releases and lax administration of its work-release program, in which inmates are allowed to serve their sentences out of custody by doing manual labor by day at public work sites and returning home at night.

A proposal set for consideration by the Board of Supervisors today would give the Probation Department responsibility for screening and evaluating work-release candidates. Meanwhile, the Department of Mental Health--which administers care of mentally ill inmates in the jails--is requesting additional funds to double its staff in the county lockups.

"Those who follow the fortunes of the department know that it has staggering problems, particularly on the custody side of operations," Bobb said.

He added that "as compared to five years ago, the [department] is more tightly managed, open, questioning, reflective and cognizant of the value of accurate data about itself and its performance."

". . . . For [Sheriff] Sherman Block, the last five years have been an unprecedented challenge. The next several may also be hard ones."

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