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Deadly delays

A year or more to probe the death of a county inmate is far too long. The Sheriff's Department must do better.

December 08, 2006

JAIL ISN'T SUPPOSED to be a death sentence, but people die there anyway. From 1997 to 2005, more than 300 inmates died in Los Angeles County jails. Some committed suicide, some expired of natural causes and some were killed by other inmates. What these deaths had in common was the unconscionably long time it took the Sheriff's Department to investigate them.

A report this week by the department's internal oversight committee found that officials on average took more than a year to review inmate deaths, with some probes lasting 500 days to two years. One particularly snail-paced inquiry took 974 days to complete.

The obvious problem with slow-motion investigations is that they weaken the chances of finding out what caused an inmate's death. The purpose of the postmortem inquiries, which are required under state law, is to find out whether an inmate's medical or mental crisis could have been prevented and, if so, whether policy or procedural changes are needed.

More to the point, investigations that drag on hardly have a ring of truth and believability when they finally conclude. When enough time passes, memories fade and witnesses are hard to track down, especially if they're inmates who have been released. Waiting years to investigate what could be fatal breakdowns in the security or medical system is tantamount to declaring that the deaths of inmates don't really matter.

L.A. County jails have been the scene of some horrendous lapses in oversight with deadly consequences, including a case in 2004 in which an inmate was allowed to wander unsupervised for hours through the jail until he found a man who had testified against him and strangled him. Such killings are criminal cases and thus subject to much quicker investigations, but they do raise questions. The jail's all-too-frequent homicides are usually blamed on overcrowding and understaffing; the same troubles might be causing other preventable deaths.

The Office of Independent Review, which released the report, was created five years ago by Sheriff Lee Baca to monitor internal investigations and suggest policy changes. When asked about the long delays in death investigations, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said they're getting faster but that the process needs to be redesigned. That's an understatement. It needs an overhaul, and that should be a priority for Baca.

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