Four candidates hoping to unseat Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca are taking a united approach in the final days of the campaign, hammering the two-term incumbent for the early release of more than 150,000 inmates from county jails in the last four years.
Without enough money to buy television ads, the challengers have spent the last several days excoriating the incumbent in speeches to community groups such as the west Glendale Kiwanis and the Hollywood Hilltoppers, a Republican women's group.
Faced with a series of steep budget cuts, Baca started closing jail facilities in 2002 and releasing inmates after less than 10% of their sentences had been served. The sheriff is under federal court order to not overcrowd the jails.
The Times reported three weeks ago that nearly 16,000 of the inmates released early were charged with committing new crimes -- including 16 murders and hundreds of assaults, robberies and sex crimes -- when they otherwise would have been in jail.
"The early release program is a disaster for the county. There is no deterrent effect," said Glendale Police Lt. Don Meredith, one of Baca's challengers, at a recent televised candidate forum.
Political observers said the four challengers were facing steep odds because of the difficulty in getting their message to voters in the nation's largest county. Another obstacle is the name recognition of Baca, who took office in 1998.
"In another world, like a partisan race for governor, [the early release of inmates] would be a very damaging issue. You know what it did to Michael Dukakis," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "Beating a countywide elected official is very, very hard. He's been a well-regarded sheriff, though he's had his ups and downs."
Whoever wins the election will direct the nation's largest sheriff's department, with responsibilities that include managing a $2-billion budget, protecting 2.7 million people across 3,000 square miles and overseeing a jail system with about 18,000 inmates.
In addition to Meredith, Baca's challengers include sheriff's Capt. Ray Leyva, retired sheriff's Capt. Ken Masse and sheriff's Sgt. Paul Jernigan.
Baca, for the most part, has appeared disinterested in his rivals. He has declined to appear with them in speaking engagements, most recently refusing to participate in a candidates' forum hosted by KTTV's Fox 11 television news last month.
The 20-minute "Midday Sunday" program offered the candidates rare -- and free -- access to the Southern California television audience. The first issue the candidates raised was the early releases and the crimes inmates committed when they would otherwise have been in jail.
"That's unacceptable and something we need to impact by using our facilities appropriately and using our staff appropriately," Leyva said.
None of the candidates has offered a detailed explanation of how Baca could have avoided the jail closures that led to the early releases. Starting in 2002, the sheriff was forced to trim more than $160 million from his budget. He said he chose to close jails and ramp up the early releases instead of laying off deputies and reducing street patrols, calling his decision "the lesser of two evils."
Baca said it was unfair of his opponents to blame him for the early releases.
"They're protest candidates who have no solutions based on practical information. They'd be forced to do the very same thing that I'm doing," Baca said. "They say, 'I'm going to do this and do that.' With what are they going to do that? They don't have the political will to ask the public for more money."
Masse said his first action if elected would be to focus on hiring deputies who would be used to reopen jail facilities, enabling the department to increase the amount of jail time for inmates.
The Board of Supervisors has called for two reports about the early releases, including one to examine whether the department has violated some inmates' constitutional rights by jailing them for their full terms while others are freed after days -- and in some cases hours -- of booking. Department policy calls for full sentences on prostitutes in Compton, where deputies are conducting a crackdown, and gang members in Hawaiian Gardens, while those convicted of the same crimes elsewhere are released early.
Last month, Baca's staff said they would start looking into the criminal backgrounds of inmates before deciding to release them early. Those with convictions for serious or violent crimes would be held for their entire sentences.
Baca, who joined the department in 1965 and rose through the ranks until his election in 1998, has addressed many public groups in recent months about his achievements and goals.