Under pressure to keep the worst inmates locked up longer, Los Angeles County officials plan to require dangerous convicts to spend more time in jail, while inmates who appear to pose little risk will be issued electronic monitoring bracelets and sent home.
Chronic jail overcrowding means that most convicts ordered to serve county time spend less than 25% of their sentences behind bars--if at all. But starting Friday, authorities say, inmates will serve at least 40% of their sentences--either in custody or in a variety of community-based programs, including work release.
By the first of the year, sheriff's officials hope that all sentenced inmates will complete their full terms in one form or another.
Although sheriff's and Probation Department officials have lauded the alternative sentencing plan as a way to ease jail overcrowding, its success depends largely on how well the county can conduct extensive background checks on potential candidates for the community programs--a task the sheriff's officials recently turned over to the Probation Department.
"Like any new process, it will take constant evaluation and refining to make it work," said Capt. David Betkey, who is overseeing the reform efforts. "The ultimate goal is to manage the inmate population so that we don't have overcrowding and we are not releasing dangerous criminals into society."
With the blessing of the Board of Supervisors, the two departments plan to spend about $4 million this year to fix a jail system in which tens of thousands of inmates have literally been allowed to walk out the doors after serving little or none of their sentences behind bars.
By checking a dozen local, state and federal crime databases, the Probation Department will evaluate potential candidates before they are released from jail, officials said. Inmates accused or convicted of any of nearly two dozen crimes--including robbery, stalking and rape--will automatically be disqualified from the program, as will those with extensive criminal histories. Others held on such offenses as burglary, drunk driving and petty theft will be considered for release on a case-by-case basis.
"That's what I like about the system," Betkey said. "It's not the inmates' current charge, but their whole criminal history that determines whether they will be released from custody."
All of those released with time remaining will be issued electronic monitoring bracelets to ensure that they stay in their homes when they're not at their jobs or at county-monitored work sites, officials said.
"If they skip out, we have crews that will go out and find them," said Lt. Mike Bornman, one of the architects of the plan. "They'll be brought back to custody, where they'll serve 100% of their sentence.
"The message is clear: There is going to be no more sweet deal."
The Sheriff's Department has come under criticism over the past year for its apparent inability to manage effectively a jail population whose numbers top 22,000 on any given day.
Under court order to limit the number of inmates in county lockups, the department in 1988 resorted to cutting the amount of time convicted criminals spend behind bars.
By late 1992, convicted inmates were being freed after serving only 40% of their sentences. Then in mid-1995, the sheriff lowered the release formula to the point that convicts only served about 23% of their sentences.
"The jail system was built on a premise that 70% or so would be misdemeanants awaiting trial or serving out short sentences, and the other 30% being felons awaiting trial," said Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, whom the Board of Supervisors appointed to track problems in the Sheriff's Department.
The three-strikes law has compounded the crowding problem, Bobb said, adding that the county would need a jail system for 40,000 to accommodate all sentenced inmates and suspects awaiting trial.
In addition to cutting sentences over the past few years, the Sheriff's Department opted to place tens of thousands of convicts on work release without even cursory reviews of their criminal records. A Times investigation last year found that although the program was intended for low-risk inmates, offenders with dozens of convictions--for such crimes as drug dealing, robbery and assault--had routinely been freed.
Thousands of participants--as many as 1 in 3--had simply skipped out on work assignments, and many went on to commit more serious crimes even before their original sentences had ended.
Under pressure from the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff ordered a complete overhaul of the program in January, turning over the responsibility for screening and evaluating work release candidates to the Probation Department, which had a far superior system of weeding out convicts considered too dangerous to be sent back to the streets.
While making fixes in the work release program, sheriff's officials came up with the idea of expanding the electronic monitoring programs to accommodate other inmates in the community.
Under the plan--called Community Based Alternatives to Custody--about 5,000 inmates will be placed on house arrest, work furlough or work release. In addition, about 230 inmates convicted of domestic violence will serve their full sentences at a special county lockup called Scapular House, which the Probation Department runs. There, the inmates will take classes on anger management and parenting skills.
"What we are trying to do is break that cycle of violence," Betkey said.
Bobb said he is heartened by the plans.
"Given constraints on the budget and competing priorities for taxpayer dollars, the expanded use of [the community-based programs] represents a good investment," Bobb said.
He added: "All in all, it's a great start. I'll be interested to see how it develops."