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Car Thief Got Jail's Green Light

An offender's repeated arrests and early releases illustrate the strain on crowded county lockups and its consequences.

July 23, 2006|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

Salvador Alvarado was behind the wheel of a stolen white 1994 Honda Civic in Eagle Rock in the early morning hours of June 13 when he caught the eye of passing police officers on the lookout for car thieves.

Their clue that the car was hot? They looked through a car window and could see there was no key in the ignition.

Alvarado, 30, led them on a short chase, running red lights and driving dangerously. Then he jumped from the car and started to run. But within a few paces, he lay down and waited for the officers to arrest him.

It was his fifth arrest in a year on suspicion of stealing cars or possessing burglary tools.

Los Angeles Police Department officials have pointed to his case as an illustration of the toll taken by career criminals.

But it also highlights the strained Los Angeles County justice system, in which overcrowded courts and a lack of jail space have been a recipe for plea bargains and truncated time behind bars -- giving career criminals such as Alvarado more time on the streets to find new victims.

On the day police caught him in Eagle Rock, Alvarado should have been in jail on a previous conviction. In November, he had been sentenced to a year in county jail for stealing another Honda -- a felony conviction. At the time, he was driving without a license because of a previous drunk driving conviction.

Even with credit for good behavior, he was due to be behind bars until today.

Instead, after serving just 38 days, he was released early -- one of more than 150,000 county jail inmates in recent years who have served only fractions of their sentences, in part because of budget cutbacks and a shortage of sheriff's deputies.

Alvarado's early release in January came despite another recent conviction for car theft. He'd been sentenced to four months in jail in June 2005 but served only five days before being released to a work program. By July 1, he had quit reporting to the program and suffered no immediate repercussions.

For Alvarado, the revolving door kept spinning quickly.

Like others who commit nonviolent offenses, Alvarado was at low risk to serve significant time behind bars. The pace of his releases and rearrests was accelerated by his willingness to appear in downtown's Division 50, an express court that allows defendants who admit their guilt to proceed directly to sentencing.

The use of such courts is meant to ease the county's overwhelming caseload and spare the expense of preliminary hearings.

But when a sentence to county jail is imposed, a defendant often ends up back on the street within days or weeks of an arrest, officials acknowledge.

"He's beating the system in terms of punishment," Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said after listening to Alvarado's list of offenses and convictions. "But in all fairness, Mr. Alvarado's types of crime pale next to the murderers and gang members and many people in the county jail right now who have been to state prison in the past."

Baca said that although he takes car theft seriously, his priority remains holding the most dangerous offenders, given federal limits on crowding in his jails.

"The reality is that if you have only a 20,000-bed capacity and yet you have a 30,000-prisoner volume, the system breaks down when it comes to county sentences," Baca said. "It collapses."

Regardless of the reasons, the result is criminals who "think it's a joke," said LAPD Lt. Steve Flores, who supervises officers who have repeatedly arrested Alvarado and other frequent offenders. "There's no consequences, and they know it," he said.

Alvarado declined to be interviewed when asked last week by jail officials if he would speak to a reporter.

After he got out of jail in January, he was rearrested March 6 on suspicion of possessing burglary tools. The next day, he pleaded guilty. He got 30 days in jail and probation but was released within hours because the sheriff does not hold county prisoners sentenced to less than three months -- a policy meant to make room for more serious offenders.

Alvarado was picked up again May 11, again on suspicion of possessing burglary tools; he got out on bail three days later.

"These are the kinds of people who nickel and dime us to death," LAPD Cmdr. Charlie Beck said. "We spend so much time trying to deal with them, and one guy who commits 30 or 40 [property crimes] in a short time just kills an area in terms of crime statistics. And if someone stole my car or your car, as far as we're concerned that's public enemy No. 1."

Beck said thieves disproportionately affect people who own older vehicles, which are easier to steal and are in demand for parts.

"When you steal the family's only car and they may or may not have insurance, it's much more serious," he said.

Nine days after his most recent arrest, Alvarado pleaded guilty to taking a vehicle without the owner's consent. This time he got a two-year prison sentence -- his first commitment to a state penitentiary.

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