Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has reopened portions of a jail in Castaic and is working with corrections officials to move convicted inmates more quickly to state prison, enabling jailers to cut back on their controversial early release program.
Citing budget problems, Baca closed some jails in 2002 and began freeing inmates convicted on nonviolent offenses after they had served only fractions of their sentences.
About 200,000 inmates have been released early from Los Angeles County jails over the last three years, the vast majority after serving 10% of their sentences.
Sheriff's Chief Marc Klugman, who oversees the jail system, said he now should be able to keep inmates for 25% to 30% of their designated terms.
"This is a way to lengthen the stay for those sentenced to county jail," Klugman said.
"I'd like to see people serve the full sentence the court gives them."
Jail officials said extra beds also allowed them to stop forcing some inmates to sleep on the floor, a practice that was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and led to a federal class-action lawsuit.
Inmates have been sleeping on the floor for more than a year, but the practice was ended last month, Klugman said.
Because of a deputy shortage, the only way the department could open bed space in the jail system was by paying deputies overtime to staff the North Annex jail facility in Castaic, Klugman said.
Baca's department has 1,000 unfilled deputy positions and is in the midst of one of the largest recruitment efforts in recent years.
Opening the closed wing in Castaic added 500 beds, and sheriff's officials said they hope to free up 800 more by getting the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to move faster to pick up inmates.
With the state prison population at a record high of about 166,000, officials have had a problem finding room for new inmates, and some have lingered for several weeks in county jails after judges found they had violated parole, Klugman said.
The crowding was particularly acute at the Men's Central Jail downtown, where four- and five-man cells routinely housed an extra inmate, who slept on a mattress on the floor, officials said.
Under a long-standing court order, jail officials can put inmates on the floor for only one night before rotating them to a bunk.
Nonetheless, the practice led to increased tension and unsanitary conditions, said Jody Kent, jails coordinator for the ACLU of Los Angeles.
The cramped quarters were particularly problematic because many jail inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells, Kent said.
"If you increase the population in the cell by even one person, it means inmates are forced to sit on their bunks or stand up against a wall. There's just no room to move around whatsoever," Kent said.
"Now there won't be any more floor-sleepers. We're sure of that."
Sheriff's and state corrections officials agreed last week to move toward significantly reducing the number of state prison inmates in the county jail system.
"I'm going to do everything I can to move these prisoners as fast as I can to help alleviate the pressure they're feeling," said Joe McGrath, chief deputy secretary of adult operations for state corrections.
This week, during a jail tour, no mattresses could be seen on cell floors.
But a lawyer representing inmates in a lawsuit against the county said he believes the problem has not been solved.
"Here's what the actual truth is: We still get letters from people who say they've been left to sleep on the floor," attorney Steve Yagman said.
The lawyer said he is representing hundreds of inmates in a class-action lawsuit against the county over the floor-sleeping issue. "I hope they do put an end to it, but it's not true that it's ended."