Under its policy of selectively releasing criminals to ease jail overcrowding, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has routinely forced women, prostitutes arrested in Compton and certain gang members to serve more time than others convicted of identical crimes.
Prosecutors and legal experts fear the practice could be illegal and prompt lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.
"It could not be more upside down and backward," Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said.
The county lacks the resources to hold all the people being sent to jail, but at the same time Sheriff Lee Baca is under federal court order to avoid overcrowding in the nation's largest jail system.
Therefore, Baca says, he has no choice but to direct jailers to free dozens of inmates every day under a set of rules that governs which inmates get out early -- many after serving less than 10% of their sentences -- and which stay behind bars.
Under the policy, inmates arrested in certain crime-plagued regions are incarcerated 10 times longer than those arrested for the same crimes in other parts of the county, according to interviews and the department's two-page "Release Criteria."
For example, people convicted of prostitution in areas served by the sheriff's Compton and Century stations are required to serve 100% of their sentences, while those convicted of prostitution in the rest of the county serve 10%.
That's because the department is cracking down on prostitution in those regions, and officials believe the program would be less effective if inmates were released early, said sheriff's Chief Marc Klugman, who oversees the jails.
The department has also made exceptions for members of a Hawaiian Gardens gang implicated in the June 2005 slaying of Deputy Jerry Ortiz.
Department policy now calls for those associated with the gang to serve full sentences for any crime for which they are convicted.
The arbitrary nature of those decisions worries Cooley and others, who say the policy could violate the "equal protection" clause of the Constitution, which requires similarly situated people to be treated equally by the government.
Long Beach City Prosecutor Tom Reeves said he was concerned for other reasons. Forcing Compton prostitutes to serve their entire sentences could push them over the border into Long Beach, where prostitutes convicted by Reeves' office serve just 10% of their sentences.
"I guess it must be a much more serious crime in Compton than it is in Long Beach," Reeves said. "That upsets me a great deal because we have quality-of-life issues, just as Compton does."
There are also gender-equity issues.
Over the years, the Sheriff's Department has maintained different release policies for men and women, even for those convicted of the same crimes.
Male and female inmates are housed in separate jail sections, and sheriff's officials said their release policies are based on the amount of space available and fluctuations in arrests.
Two years ago, women convicted of all but the most serious crimes were released immediately, serving none of their sentences. But in the last year, the department required women convicted of assault to serve 25% of their sentences while men served just 10%.
Klugman said he changed the policy earlier this month. Men and women now are eligible for release after serving 10% of their time.
"You could probably go through this entire early release policy and nitpick it and find all kinds of inequities. But remember: No one has a right to early release," Klugman said.
The Sheriff's Department has released inmates early from its jails for decades to deal with overcrowding issues. Faced with steep cuts to its budget, the sheriff started closing jail facilities in 2002 and dramatically increased the practice of early release.
A staff of civilian clerks decides who is released by reviewing inmate files and the release criteria drafted by department executives.
In the last four years, the department has freed more than 150,000 inmates three or more days early. According to an investigation by The Times, nearly 16,000 of those were charged with committing new crimes during the time they would otherwise have been in custody, including 518 robberies, 215 sex crimes and 16 murders.
Last Tuesday, the Sheriff's Department announced that it would begin looking into inmates' criminal records before deciding whether they should be released early. Those with past convictions for violent or serious crimes would be held for their entire sentences, Klugman said.
That announcement underscored the difficult task the Sheriff's Department has in striking a balance between meeting a federal court order that prohibits the agency from overcrowding the jails and its duty to protect the public.