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L.A. County jails might close, sheriff warns

Facing budget cuts, Lee Baca says he'd rather release inmates early than reduce deputies. But William T Fujioka, the county chief executive, says .

February 24, 2009|Richard Winton, Garrett Therolf and Molly-Hennessy-Fiske

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Monday threatened to close the Men's Central Jail and perhaps a second detention facility when he and other county department heads are forced to cut their budgets.

Baca said closing the downtown Los Angeles jail, which would greatly reduce the capacity of the county jail system and lead to more early releases of inmates, might be necessary to bridge what he estimates will be a $72-million gap in his budget.

The sheriff's statement met with consternation from top county officials, who said Baca was being premature and exaggerating the size of the cuts he might have to make.

"I feel this is absolutely irresponsible by the sheriff to release this story because it has not even been considered by the Board [of Supervisors], let alone approved," said William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive.

The county budgeting process often includes public threats of deep cuts -- which officials suddenly agree to reverse at the last minute. Baca acknowledged that it's possible no jails will close if the budget issues can be worked out. Still, he noted, the department had to slash $150 million during the last recession, earlier this decade.

The sheriff said his plans for handling cuts to his department's $2.5-billion budget are still in the preliminary stages. But if a jail has to close, he said, it will be the aging Men's Central facility, which over the years has experienced outbreaks of violence, including several murders committed by inmates. Jailers have long said the facility is outdated and extremely difficult to patrol. Built in 1963, the jail costs about $50 million a year to operate and houses about 6,700 of the 18,000 inmates in the county jail system.

Baca said Monday that he is trying to avoid any cuts in sheriff street patrols. The department has about 10,000 deputies. Baca said that the cuts would not require layoffs, but that the department could end up with 400 fewer deputies through attrition.

He took the same stance when he faced budget cuts in 2002. At that time, Baca also said he would rather reduce the capacity of the jails than take deputies off the streets. He then shut down thousands of jail beds and released more than 150,000 inmates early over the next few years.

A Times investigation in 2006 found that thousands of those released early were arrested for violent or life-endangering offenses, including murder, when they would otherwise have still been locked up. In recent years, the department has been trying to reduce early release of inmates amid public outcry over the practice.

Baca's warning about the potential jail closures comes about two weeks after a panel of federal judges tentatively ruled that California's prisons must reduce their population by as many as 57,000 inmates. That ruling, which is being appealed by the state, came after a trial in two long-running cases brought by inmates to protest conditions in the state prison system. The state's 33 prisons currently house about 158,000 people but were designed to hold about half that number.

The county is facing wrenching decisions throughout its departments. The state budget approved last week requires $252 million in cuts to the county's $23-billion annual budget. And state support could continue to drop.

"These numbers keep changing, and I think they're overly optimistic in their revenue projections," Supervisor Don Knabe said.

Compounding the loss in state money is the county's deteriorating sales- and property-tax revenue.

Still, the state cuts so far are not as severe as people feared, and deferred payments to the counties will not be as drastic as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened during budget negotiations.

The federal stimulus package is also expected to provide millions of dollars in additional help, though Fujioka said his budget analysts had not yet completed their evaluation of the stimulus package.

Some state cuts probably will not be offset by federal money. About $35.1 million in state cuts, for example, will be passed on to the county's beleaguered probation department, which is under two federal mandates to improve conditions at 22 juvenile halls and camps that house about 3,600 young people.

In recent weeks, Fujioka has asked all county departments to draft budget proposals that reduce spending by 5%, though he said some departments would be asked to cut more and others less. The Sheriff's Department was cited as one department that probably would not have to cut the full 5%.

Fujioka said Monday that the reductions to the sheriff's budget, still in early drafts, do not include requests to slice $72 million as Baca contends. He said his request instead calls on the department to achieve smaller savings through additional use of video arraignments and increase the electronic monitoring program.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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