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Cells without bars

Sheriff Baca's proposal to expand home detention and monitoring is a valid way to ease jail crowding.

July 13, 2007

LOS ANGELES SHERIFF Lee Baca is an unconventional sort. He seeks to counsel the homeless while other law enforcement leaders prefer to make arrests. He lets Paris Hilton go home when the world seems to want her behind bars. He dukes it out with the county supervisors who control his budget. (That's an animus that goes way back: They supported his rival, incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block, when Baca first ran for the office in 1998. Block died on the eve of the election, and some of the supes declined even then to support Baca, preferring to stick with the dead guy.)

Still, give the sheriff credit. He thinks broadly about fighting crime and running jails, and his most recent foray is a worthy one. Baca has pitched the notion of expanding home detention so that he can move 2,000 low-level inmates from his overcrowded jails and confine them to their homes, where they would be electronically monitored. That would take some pressure off his jails and presumably allow him to cut back the county's widely criticized early release program, under which the vast majority of inmates serve a small fraction of their sentences, usually about 25% and sometimes even less.

The county already offers home confinement, but many inmates decline it for the simple reason that early release cuts so much time off their sentences that it's a better deal. Why spend a month confined to your house when you can spend three or four days in jail and be done with it? Expanding home confinement and making it mandatory would eliminate that system-gaming and allow Baca to hold other inmates longer.

So who would oppose such a move? Some of the predictable law-and-order types have issues -- they unrealistically expect the county to churn out more and more jails in a futile attempt to lock up everyone for long stays. Curiously, however, this time they are joined by some inmate-rights advocates, who maintain that inmates would lose their access to jail medical care if they're at home instead of inside. That's a bold and idiotic argument. We're happy to agree that inmates deserve safe and clean jails -- as well as medical care while locked up -- but the fact is that the inmates who would be eligible for the home confinement program currently serve such short sentences that they barely get medical care anyway. And they're hardly denied it by being at home; all they have to do is dial 911.

Baca is to be commended for experimenting with ways to run Los Angeles' troubled jails. This idea deserves support.

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