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New Jail Options Needed

Counties' detention centers may not have to be operated by sheriffs.

June 27, 2004|Marc B. Haefele | Marc B. Haefele, news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press, is heard on KPCC (89.3 FM) on Fridays.

Even Sheriff Lee Baca probably knows that Los Angeles County's jail system is failing. From October to April, inmates, including some key witnesses in murder cases, were being killed almost every month. The ratio of deputy guards to prisoners in the troubled Central Jail was an abysmal 1 to 45, according to the Sheriff's Department. Gang-member inmates now say, "We run the jails." Who could doubt them?

The sheriff's office oversees the nation's largest county jail system, with more than 17,000 inmates. It picked up this job in 1921, 70 years after the office was created. By the 1980s, Proposition 13's effects began clobbering county spending and, ever since then, an unacknowledged war of budgetary priorities has been waged in almost every sheriff's department in the state.

It's a war between the departments' original function of law enforcement and the secondary one of running the jails, a terribly uneven struggle because countywide voters who elect sheriffs care a great deal about the first function and little about the second. Jails thus can automatically get shortchanged.

Because of budget shortfalls, Baca has increasingly been releasing early those convicted of nonviolent crimes, leaving behind a growing concentration of some of the most violent people in the county; the resulting rise in jail disorder brings the budgetary problem into sharp relief.

There is a good moral argument in favor of the government's responsibilities toward its charges. But there are more practical ones too. Letting prisoners attack and even kill each other at will silences witnesses and lets criminals go free.

More to the point, there is a tradition of court actions that puts bad jail systems under a judge's scrutiny. In 1978, for example, Orange County's jails came under court oversight because of crowded conditions and prisoner-rights violations. So did Santa Clara County's, for the same reasons. As a result, the supervising judges could demand jail improvements that sheriffs had shirked, which further strained budgets. Orange County's answer was a controversial tent-city facility, since dismantled, but its legal troubles continued. Last fall, a court OKd a class-action lawsuit over alleged civil rights abuses.

But Santa Clara came up with an innovative solution, one that L.A. County should have the chance to consider to ease its overcrowded conditions. It got the county sheriff out of the custody business.

Santa Clara supervisors revised the county charter in 1987 to divide law enforcement from custody duties, a decision voters approved. They created a stand-alone corrections division focusing on care, custody and control of its jail population "in a cost-effective manner."

L.A. County's Sheriff's Department has been ambivalent about the objectives of its custody operation. Former Sheriff Sherman Block once said that the requisite jail-guard assignment right out of the academy was good for deputies, implying that the jail functions mostly as a finishing school for peace officers. But this also confirms what the sheriff's own counsel disclosed last November: Because most of their professional schooling has been in law enforcement, the 2,000 or so deputies on jail guard duty are raw and unprepared for the assignment.

By contrast, Santa Clara's 700 jail guards are trained exclusively for lockups. As a result, not only should they do a better job, but they also are easier to train and, accordingly, are paid about 15% less than deputies, county officials say. This means that under Santa Clara's system, for the same taxpayer investment, you get eight jail guards for the price of seven deputy guards.

So if it works better and costs less, why isn't the corrections department system in wider use? Simply, the state's 58 county sheriffs are against it. So are the unions representing their deputies. Together, these form one powerful lobby against reform. According to Sally Reed, former county executive of Santa Clara, the immediate savings from the new system were largely offset by court costs to defend it against legal challenges.

But the sheriffs' lobby won passage of a law that virtually outlaws any new custody-department formation in the state. Even if the sheriffs can't do the job right, it seems that they don't want to give up custody revenue, which in L.A. County this year amounts to about 30% of the sheriff's total budget of $1.6 billion. (The actual cost to the county is lower because of other funding sources.) But do our county operations exist for the sake of institutions like the Sheriff's Department, or is it the other way around? Even if the L.A. County supervisors put Baca's law-enforcement sales tax proposal on the ballot next week, and it passes, the money raised would be subject to the same spending pressures, and the jails could still be shortchanged.

This county, and all counties in California, should have the choice of who gets to run the jails. And that choice should be legal again. Then we can see whether an independent system that offers both lower taxpayer costs and more accountability can be scaled up from Santa Clara's jail system -- the fifth-largest in the state -- to ours.

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