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Sheriff Baca's Power Play

June 26, 2002

When last we heard from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, he'd threatened to release 400 inmates awaiting trial for minor, nonviolent crimes such as burglary and vandalism who were being held on bail of $25,000 or less. Baca said the looming county budget cuts were forcing him to take tough cost-cutting measures. Then, after a wave of protest, he promised to delay following through on his threat until July 1, after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on the Sheriff's Department budget.

Suddenly last week, more than 1,200 inmates who were serving time for misdemeanor crimes walked out of the jails, at Baca's invitation. It's hard to miss the power play.

Those released were inmates convicted of misdemeanors such as petty theft, forgery and shoplifting who had no history of violence and no outstanding warrants. They may not have been classified as dangerous, but their crimes were not victimless. Their early freedom won't sit well with anyone who has been blindsided by a forged check or a huge bill run up on a stolen credit card. Baca, as Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke pointed out, can't guarantee that the newly released criminals won't break the law again.

Baca blames the early release on a 10% increase in the jail population since December. Releasing inmates a few days early to relieve overcrowding can be a reasonable step, but it wouldn't be reasonable now, given the sheriff's threats and actions.

Baca isn't the first L.A. County sheriff to go the early-release route. He learned well from his predecessor, Sherman Block, who during his own budget battles also misused his power over the jails to let thousands of inmates out early. That tactic was wrong then. It's wrong now.

The Board of Supervisors can't fire the elected sheriff or tell him how to spend his money, but it does determine the size of his budget. The supervisors are scheduled to vote today. Considering the no-win choices the county faces in contemplating deep health-care cuts, the Sheriff's Department cannot expect to escape without its share of belt-tightening.

Baca should save the supervisorial arm-twisting for issues and causes the public can readily support. Setting criminals free on the eve of a budget vote isn't the issue or the cause.

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