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Why L.A. jail cells have revolving doors

A strained justice system and a flawed rehab law feed the cycle of repeat offenders.

December 26, 2006|Megan Garvey and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Bertha Cuestas was standing outside her Highland Park apartment scratching off an instant lottery ticket when veteran Los Angeles Police Department Officers J.C. Duarte and Harold Marinelli spotted the 50-year-old from their patrol car.

They had been arresting Cuestas for prostitution and drugs since their days on the vice squad in the mid-1990s. On this warm October afternoon, she was wanted for failing to report to the judge in her most recent drug case.

"Why didn't you go to court?" Duarte asked her.

"I was busy," she replied.

Cuestas knew the drill. She asked a friend for money, then stuffed the $7.42 he gave her into her bra for the bus ride home when she got out of jail.

"How many times have you guys done this with her?" her son asked, cradling his infant daughter in his arm.

"Too many times," Marinelli said.

It was the start of a typical week for Duarte and Marinelli. Like other patrol officers throughout Los Angeles County, the longtime partners are spending more and more time picking up old regulars like Cuestas.

A Times investigation has found that thieves, drug offenders and other repeat criminals are cycling in and out of jail faster than ever.

Since 2000, the number of people booked two or more times into jails in Los Angeles County in a single year has jumped 73%, reaching 61,646 last year, according to a Times analysis. Repeat offenders now account for 42% of bookings, up from 26% in 2000.

Once booked, defendants enter a justice system whose resources have not kept pace with demand, even as crime has dropped in recent years.

There are not enough prosecutors to try them. There are not enough courts to sentence them. There are not enough jail or prison beds to house them. And there is not enough treatment to help them.

Instead, repeat offenders drain limited justice resources and are quickly back on the streets to get arrested again, taking up the time of police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges. Patrol cops are frustrated. Victims feel forgotten.

"Under any other definition of crisis, this would be an emergency," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who runs the nation's largest network of jails. "The system is collapsing because of its volume."

A solution, top law enforcement officials say, would require far more money than lawmakers have been willing to commit.

"We didn't cure malaria until we started draining the swamps instead of just swatting at the mosquitoes," said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. "The resources have just not been committed to draining the swamps."

A week on the beat

To gauge the effects of the revolving door, The Times examined jail bookings since 2000. Reporters interviewed prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, law enforcement leaders and criminologists.

The paper also spent a week in October with officers in the LAPD's Northeast Division, a 29-square-mile collection of affluent and poor neighborhoods that runs from Eagle Rock to eastern Hollywood.

Police that week made 28 adult felony arrests, on typical charges for the division's patrol officers, mostly drug offenses, thefts and domestic violence. Within six weeks of their arrests, 12 had cycled through the court system, were found guilty and were back on the streets. Three others arrested on warrants were released by judges within days.

Of those 15, three have already been rearrested and are back in jail.

"We get so many repeaters it's ridiculous," Officer Duarte said. "They do a few days and then they're back out again."

Duarte and Marinelli had a hand in five arrests that week, all involving repeat offenders. Together, the five had at least 106 previous arrests and 61 convictions. Cuestas alone had been arrested 21 times, most recently in July.

Cuestas had been ordered to enter rehab in August under Proposition 36, the 2000 state initiative that mandates treatment rather than incarceration for most nonviolent drug offenders. She never went, leading to the warrant.

She is among thousands who have failed to complete treatment. Although nearly 8,000 people in the county successfully completed Proposition 36 rehab between July 2001 and June 2005, they are the minority. UCLA researchers found that about 75% of those sentenced to treatment opted out, never showed up or stopped going.

Duarte and Marinelli believe the initiative gives longtime, chronic users like Cuestas too many chances to reoffend, with little consequence.

"We need to let the courts know Prop. 36 is not working for a lot of people," Duarte said.

A parolee is arrested

A day after they arrested Cuestas, Marinelli and Duarte were called in to help with a search. Rodolfo Salcido, 35, had been pulled over driving a stolen 1991 Toyota Camry. Before police could detain him, he fled, jumping over a picket fence in a Cypress Park neighborhood.

Police found Salcido crammed into an attic crawl space in the laundry room of a nearby apartment building.

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