Mario Moreno should still have been behind bars the night he climbed into the passenger seat of a stolen car with two fellow gang members.
He was carrying a rifle, some cartridges and, in his jacket pocket, a bag of marijuana. "Let's go do this," the car's driver recalled Moreno saying as they headed into the turf of a rival black gang.
They drove by a liquor store at 89th Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles. Two older black men were standing outside.
Moreno, 18, aimed his weapon out the driver's-side window and fired. One bullet killed Darrell Dennard, 53, a grandfather who slept in an alley behind a nearby fish market and got by doing odd jobs. He had just bought a lottery ticket. It was about 9 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2004.
If not for a chronic shortage of jail beds in Los Angeles County, Dennard's killer would have been in jail four more months. Moreno had been convicted of possessing a sawed-off shotgun -- a felony. A probation officer called him a "danger to the community," and a judge sentenced him to a year in jail, the county maximum. Six days later he was released into a work program. Since his arrest, he had served a total of 53 days.
Moreno joined more than 150,000 county inmates who have been released during the last four years after serving fractions of their sentences. Thousands, like Moreno, committed violent crimes when they would otherwise have been locked up, even with time off for good behavior.
The large-scale releases started in mid-2002, when Sheriff Lee Baca had to make major budget cuts. Unwilling to lay off patrol officers, he chose to close jails.
As a result, nearly everyone now sentenced to 90 days or less is let go immediately. Many others leave after serving no more than 10% of their time, making Los Angeles County Jail sentences among the weakest in the nation.
A Los Angeles Times investigation of early releases since Baca's jail closures began found:
* Nearly 16,000 inmates -- more than 10% of those released early -- were rearrested and charged with new crimes while they were supposed to be incarcerated.
* Nearly 2,000 of those rearrested were released early a second time, only to be arrested again while they should have been behind bars. Hundreds of those people cycled through jail three or more times. One example of the revolving door: A 55-year-old woman was released early in 2002 on an assault charge, only to be rearrested three days later on suspicion of another assault. Over the next three years, she was released early 15 times and rearrested 19 times when she was supposed to be locked up.
* Sixteen men, including Moreno, were charged with murders committed while they should have been in jail. Nine are awaiting trial; seven have been convicted in the homicides.
* More than a fourth of those rearrested were charged with violent or life-endangering crimes, including 518 robberies, 215 sex offenses, 641 weapons violations, 635 drunk-driving incidents, 1,443 assaults and 20 kidnappings.
Many of these inmates probably would have committed new offenses even if they had served full sentences. But the early releases have given career criminals more time on the streets to commit additional crimes, endangering the public.
Juvenal Valencia, 21, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, released early and then cycled in and out of jail twice more after early releases. Prosecutors have now charged him with first-degree murder in a drive-by shooting that left one man dead and five others wounded. He has pleaded not guilty. At the time of the killing, Valencia had two months left to serve for a probation violation.
In recent years, sheriff's clerks have routinely disregarded sentences handed down by judges. In some cases, inmates are freed despite instructions from a judge that they must serve their full sentences.
"That puts us all in peril," said Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. "I think criminals have learned from this that there is a way to beat the system.... For many, a few days in jail has become just a cost of doing business."
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who led the Boston and New York police departments before taking over in Los Angeles in late 2002, said the situation has frustrated officers on the street and made policing harder.
"It's an amazing system. I've never seen anything like it," he said. "The police, prosecutors and judges -- sometimes even a jury -- have made decisions, and you have the ability to arbitrarily undo all of that."
In recent interviews, Baca defended his decision to release inmates early as a "last resort," saying he had little choice but to shut down jail facilities when he had to cut millions of dollars from his budget.
At the time, Baca warned that crime would increase if he weren't given more money. "In a public safety fashion, the net will be cut and the floodgate will be open to more crime," Baca told county supervisors at a 2002 board meeting to which he had brought a thousand supporters.