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For Baca, home is where the jail is

July 12, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Under fire for overcrowded jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is seeking the power to force thousands of inmates to be placed on detention in their homes, but prisoners rights advocates are fighting the move, saying that it would mean many more inmates would be deprived of the medical and mental healthcare they get behind bars.

Baca called the proposed new power a short-term solution to the jail overcrowding problem that has forced him to release thousands of inmates after they served only a fraction of their sentences.

If granted the new authority by the state Legislature, the sheriff expects to assign about 2,000 inmates with low-level offenses to involuntary home detention, where they will wear electronic ankle bracelets that tell corrections officials whether the convicts stray from their homes.

"It will help me keep people in jail who need to stay in jail, including domestic violence offenders," Baca said. "Home detention, with electronic monitoring, is the best alternative to overcrowded jails because the offender can't go anywhere. They are not going to be free to commit other crimes."

The new powers, available to any county with an early release program because of jail overcrowding, are contained in a bill recently approved by the state Senate and passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, setting the stage for a final vote by the full Assembly.

At times, home detention has been controversial. When Baca sent Paris Hilton home from jail last month, an outcry rose from the public and prosecutors.

She was sent back to jail within days after City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo persuaded the judge in the case that Hilton belonged behind bars, not roaming her luxurious home in the Hollywood Hills.

Indeed, Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Salinas) cited the Hilton case in explaining why he voted against the bill.

"I take a very tough stance on crime," Denham said. "I very strongly believe if you commit the crime, you have to do the time. We should not be creating a system where the rich and famous like Hilton who can afford a good attorney get different treatment."

The answer to overcrowded jails is to build more jails, he said.

But Baca said the legislation he is sponsoring would result in inmates serving more time away from society.

Currently, home detention is voluntary, and last year 8,713 inmates applied for the alternative to jail time with about three-quarters of them getting approval.

However, many inmates do not apply -- betting that they will be released from jail in a few days because of the early release policy, said Wayne Bilowit, a sheriff's employee assigned to advocate for legislation in Sacramento.

Under home detention, they serve their full sentence minus any normal credits available to jailed inmates, Baca said.

Some opponents of the legislation winding its way through the Legislature are not fighting it on the law-and-order grounds raised in the Hilton case.

Instead, they say the county has already made it difficult for inmates to get medical care and psychiatric services in the jails, and the new program will make it even harder.

"This bill may allow jails to place individuals who need critical medical or psychiatric care in home detention without identified services or funding to pay for these services," said Margaret Jakobson-Johnson of Protection and Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit group providing legal help and advocacy for the disabled.

Hilton, who sought home detention because the jails were not meeting her psychological needs, is an example of the problem faced by many inmates, Jakobson-Johnson said.

The Times reported that 10,000 complaints were filed from 2000 to 2005 by inmates who were unable to get adequate service for health issues.

However, poor inmates may be left on their own entirely if put on home detention, Jakobson-Johnson said.

In addition, she is concerned that some of those on home detention will lack stable housing. "Release on home detention without housing, or a clear plan to find housing quickly, may do more harm to an individual," she said.

The proposed legislation would allow those assigned to home detention to receive vocational and housing assistance and to leave home for psychological and medical care, said state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), a coauthor of the bill. He said the county does not give up its obligation to provide inmates with healthcare just because they are assigned to home detention.

He disputed Jakobson-Johnson's criticism that home detainees would be less likely to get the care they need than those behind bars.

"That argument doesn't make sense," Runner said. "What's happening now is these people are being released after a few days and sent home, or are not serving any time in jail. In those circumstances, they are not getting any care anyway."

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