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Skid row's revolving door

October 09, 2006

IT HAS TAKEN FAR LONGER than it should have, but the city and the police department are finally starting to wrest back control of skid row. Two weeks ago, officers began arresting transients for sleeping on sidewalks during daylight hours, removed scores of homeless encampments and have made more than 800 arrests.

The aim is not to harass the thousands of homeless people who call downtown home but to crack down on the criminals and drug dealers who prey on them -- and to begin to change the culture of lawlessness and despair.

But if making more arrests is all the city's law enforcement apparatus plans to do, the initiatives will be for naught. Today, far too many downtown criminals who get convicted of serious offenses serve only days of their sentences, then return to the scene of the crime. Even while the Los Angeles Police Department cracks down, the district attorney maintains a damaging revolving-door policy in which those who commit crimes on skid row serve less time than if they sold heroin or committed another felony elsewhere in the city.

Consider the case of the Moppin sisters. Angelice has been arrested three times for possessing or selling drugs on skid row. Convicted once, in 2002, she spent only weeks in jail. April has been convicted three times in the last four years for the same crimes. She served 18 months in prison, came back to the same streets and was arrested again in July.

Part of the problem is that the jail and prison systems are seriously overcrowded. That's why the district attorney and local judges say they have no choice but to let convicted criminals from all over the city back out on the streets. But turning around skid row doesn't require flooding the system with scores of new prisoners. We just need to get serious about the relatively small number of offenders who commit a disproportionate share of the crimes. Police say they know who they are because they see them every day.

Two weeks ago, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced a new policy of barring convicted drug offenders from returning downtown while on probation. That may help some, but it certainly isn't enough. Better would be if the D.A. joined other law enforcement officials to come up with a plan to ensure that the worst skid row offenders stay locked up long enough to make their arrests worth everyone's while. Better too if Cooley realized he needs to take a higher-profile role in addressing crime downtown, something he has avoided in the past. Simply asking criminals to stay away won't cut it, especially if the punishment is another two-day stay behind bars.

The lesson of the last few months is that broad-based civic engagement, and a thousand little steps, can have a real effect downtown. Momentum is finally at hand. It's time for the D.A. to contribute.

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