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County inmates face more jail time

Sheriff Baca, who has let prisoners go early to cut overcrowding, says he has resources to house male detainees longer.

February 06, 2007|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Most convicted criminals in Los Angeles County will spend significantly more time in jail under a policy introduced Monday by Sheriff Lee Baca.

Baca said he now has the resources to hold male inmates for at least 50% of their sentences, a significant change from the early-release policy that he implemented more than four years ago to ease jail overcrowding.

Since mid-2002, nearly 200,000 inmates have been released early from the county's overwhelmed jail system, many of them after serving less than 10% of their sentences.

The Sheriff's Department can now hold inmates longer because it has freed more than 1,000 beds by ending a long-standing practice of housing state prison inmates in the county jails, Baca said. Prosecutors also expect that many inmates will be compelled to accept community service or house arrest, now that the alternative could mean more time in jail.

Prosecutors and police countywide have been frustrated by the early releases, which Baca said were prompted by budget cuts that forced him to reduce staff and therefore jail capacity. Until Monday, inmates sentenced to 90 days or less often were booked into jail and released the same day.

County law enforcement officials said they were thrilled by the change.

"This will help the whole system by making jail time a real potential," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said he believed that the change would help him reach his goal of reducing crime by 5% this year compared with last year.

"From our perspective, that's great news," Bratton said. "Because if they are in there, they are not out on the streets committing crime. Unfortunately, in this state there is a huge recidivism problem. The reality is a lot of people in there are career criminals; their life is all about committing crime."

Redondo Beach City Atty. Mike Webb, president of the Los Angeles County Prosecutors Assn., said that many criminal defendants had refused to accept community service or other alternatives to jail because "they knew if they took jail they wouldn't serve it."

"It'll mean that punishment will be real for violating the law," Webb said. "Now a jail sentence will mean just that. There becomes more of a real deterrence to crime."

Baca's change in policy followed discussions with county prosecutors, including many who were concerned that the Sheriff's Department had been holding some inmates longer than others even if they were convicted of the same crimes.

For example, inmates who had been convicted of prostitution in areas served by the sheriff's Century and Compton stations had been held for their entire sentences because deputies were cracking down on prostitution in those areas. Prostitutes arrested in other parts of the county often served 10% or less of their sentences. Prostitution sentences will now be handled uniformly.

Baca said the new policy increasing time served, however, would affect only male inmates because he lacked enough bed space for women. That could mean that women would serve significantly less time in jail than men who had been convicted of the same crimes and received identical sentences.

Cooley said he was unhappy that the changes would not apply to women. Sheriff's officials said they hoped to eventually increase the time that women inmates would serve as well.

Baca said the first step toward increasing inmates' jail time was taken last year when the Board of Supervisors voted to end a $27-million contract to house some state prison inmates in county cells. The sheriff cautioned that his department may have to adjust the percentage of time that men serve as the jail population changes.

Last year, The Times reported that many inmates released early were accused of committing crimes during the times they would have been in custody if they had remained in custody. Among those inmates were 16 accused of murder, 518 of robbery and more than 200 of sex crimes.

"Overall, we are in much better posture than we have been in years," Cooley said. "New life has been breathed back into the system. We really have marched forward."

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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