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Hilton case is not likely to affect others' sentences

Jail overcrowding means there's little judges can do to ensure that offenders serve most of their time in custody.

June 22, 2007|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Don't expect other inmates released early from the Los Angeles County Jail to be thrown back in to serve their full sentences, despite what happened to Paris Hilton.

That's the consensus among top judges and prosecutors who say there are a variety of practical, political and legal issues that prevent challenging Sheriff Lee Baca's policy of releasing inmates well before their sentences end.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Paris Hilton: Articles in The Times about Paris Hilton's jail sentence have given differing accounts of how long the hotel heiress spent behind bars the first time before Sheriff Lee Baca released her. Hilton entered custody at 11:15 p.m. on June 3 and was released early in the morning of June 7. The Sheriff's Department credited her with five days in jail, but she actually served less than four full days.

Many of his colleagues privately applaud the decision by Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer to return the hotel heiress to custody after she was released after spending less than four full days in jail on a 45-day sentence. But judges said the practical realities of jail overcrowding and the fact that judges rarely learn when defendants are released mean there is little they can do to halt the practice.

Court administrators insist that most judges also appreciate the difficulties that confront the sheriff in trying to manage an overcrowded, violence-prone jail system that is the largest in the country.

"This has been a give and take for the 19 years that I've been on the bench," said Los Angeles County Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger. "There's occasional frustration among individual judges, but they recognize that we're both part of a large system ... and at the end of the day they have to make sure that the system doesn't collapse."

Lawyers in the Los Angeles city attorney's office, which prosecuted Hilton and sought her return to jail, also warned against viewing the 26-year-old's courtroom drama as a test case.

In the Hilton case, they said they had a strong legal argument to challenge Baca because the sheriff cited undisclosed medical problems in his decision to send her home with an electronic ankle bracelet. Sauer had specifically ordered the sheriff not to release her early or to allow her to go home on electronic monitoring.

But in the vast majority of early releases, the Sheriff's Department cites overcrowding concerns as the reason. The department has freed inmates early for nearly 20 years under a federal court order that requires it to relieve overcrowding.

City prosecutors said they were reviewing whether they could ask the federal court to add guidelines to the order that would ensure that more dangerous offenders serve more of their time. Until then, they said, Baca has the final word on who can be released and when, despite what state judges say.

"The federal order trumps anything that a state court can do," said Jeff Isaacs, chief of the criminal branch of the city attorney's office. "We've debated it internally for quite some time: Is there anything that a judge can do to make sure that a certain class of offender can stay in longer? And the answer is no."

Los Angeles County jails have been releasing inmates early off and on for nearly two decades. The most recent wave of releases began in 2002, when Baca said a budget crunch gave him no option but to close large portions of the jails.

Since then, the department has released more than 200,000 inmates early, including some who later committed murders and other serious crimes when they otherwise would have been behind bars.

Sauer sentenced Hilton to jail after she violated the terms of her probation on an alcohol-related reckless driving conviction. The judge made it clear that Hilton was not to be released early or allowed to go home with electronic monitoring. The Sheriff's Department released Hilton despite initially saying she would serve at least 23 days, after reductions for good behavior were factored in.

On previous occasions, jail officials ignored orders from judges to keep particular inmates in jail for their full sentences.

Judges rarely hear when someone they have sentenced to jail is released because the Sheriff's Department is under no obligation to notify them.

But in Hilton's case, Sauer and city prosecutors learned of her release not from jail officials but from the news media's coverage of the heiress' case.

"Celebrity cases by definition are different from the run-of-the-mill cases," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former prosecutor. "I wouldn't expect judges to be doing this on a regular basis."

Sauer declined to comment for this article.

His actions have struck a chord with other judges, many of whom complain that early releases undermine the integrity of the justice system, effectively leaving sentences in the hands of jailers.

"I think that he hit a nerve among judges, and I think that what he did was a positive thing," said Superior Court Judge David M. Horwitz.

Some judges with small caseloads might try Sauer's approach in individual cases, he said. But Horwitz noted that jail -- rather than prison -- is where minor offenders are generally sent, and he said few judges are likely to keep up with the actual jail time each of those defendants serve.

"It's hard for me to think that there are that many judges who send people to County Jail and get that involved in their cases," he said.

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