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Many L.A. County Jail Inmates Still Held Too Long

Some get modest payments if they agree not to sue. Errors have been reduced, Baca says.

September 09, 2005|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

At a time when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is releasing thousands of inmates because of budget shortfalls in the nation's largest jail system, it continues to wrongly hold scores of others who are entitled to release.

To avoid being sued for keeping inmates too long, the department is handing some of them checks for several hundred dollars but requiring them to sign documents that would prevent them from taking the county to court.

Four years ago, Los Angeles County paid $27 million to settle class-action lawsuits by inmates who were illegally jailed or mistreated while in custody.

A federal judge recently ordered the Sheriff's Department to explicitly tell inmates that by accepting a settlement -- some get as little as a few dollars per day -- they would no longer be eligible to sue the county for damages.

In at least some cases, forms written in English were presented to inmates who didn't speak the language fluently. After inquiries from The Times, the department said it would begin producing documents in Spanish for inmates to use to waive their legal rights.

In a 12-month period that ended in June, the department jailed 66 inmates who had been ordered released or who were never charged with crimes, according to sheriff's records. Most inmates were improperly held for days, a few for weeks or even months, mainly because of paperwork errors. Of the 66 inmates, 37 received checks in exchange for signing the legal waivers.

One was Juan Avalos, a Mexican immigrant who spent 73 days in County Jail in the summer of 2004 before sheriff's deputies realized they'd made a mistake. Avalos had been arrested on a warrant for a probation violation in Orange County, but he was never taken to that county to face a judge.

Instead, the department jailed him nearly 11 weeks before telling him that he would need to drive to Orange County on his own to deal with his problem. The department gave him a check for $500 after he signed a waiver relinquishing his rights to sue the county for false imprisonment.

Avalos, who speaks very little English, said he didn't understand the waiver because the documents were in English. He thought the $500 might be bail money. Instead, the payment allowed the Sheriff's Department to settle his wrongful jailing for $7 per day.

Concerned about Avalos' assertion to The Times that he didn't understand what he was signing, the Sheriff's Department asked county lawyers Thursday to begin producing its waiver forms in Spanish, said Lt. Shaun Mathers, who supervises the department's risk management division.

When told about the continuing problem of inmates staying in jail too long, Michael Gennaco, chief of the sheriff's Office of Independent Review, said Thursday that he would launch his own investigation into why the practice continues.

He said he is concerned that the department isn't doing enough to determine why the inmates are being improperly jailed.

"I think one is too many. Sixty-six suggests that there are still issues," Gennaco said. "They can certainly do better."

Sheriff Lee Baca said instances like Avalos' wrongful detention are regrettable. But in a county that books 200,000 inmates a year, 66 mistakes are hardly evidence of an epidemic, he said, adding that clerks whose task it is to process releases are often overworked.

"If they're required to work faster, then you do have mistakes," he said. "The over-detention consequence is not acceptable, but it's a human reality. My goal is to get it down to no over-detentions. That's certainly where it should be."

The problem is one that has popped up in other local jails around the country. In Washington D.C., for instance, a pending lawsuit alleges that dozens of inmates were held beyond their release dates.

The county first grappled with the issue in 2001, when it paid the $27 million to settle five class-action lawsuits alleging that thousands of inmates were held beyond their release dates and were illegally strip-searched by deputies.

The over-detentions have pointed up a paradox in the system: While some county inmates are held too long, others are released early. Since 2002, Baca has closed jails and released more than 100,000 inmates who have served as little as 10% of their court-ordered sentences for offenses that include burglary, minor assault and drunk driving.

Baca contends that budget cutbacks have left him no other choice but to cut jail time for lesser offenders. And he says he has addressed the wrongful detention problem, bringing the numbers way down from the 712 inmates who were improperly held in 1997-98.

"When you consider the volume and the small number of people who are [jailed improperly], we really are doing a good job," said Chief Marc Klugman, who heads the department's Correctional Services Division. "It's not OK to over-detain anybody. Given what we're dealing with, our people are doing a terrific job."

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