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Sheriff Baca suggests lower bails to cut jail crowding

After saying budget cuts could force him to close facilities, he proposes that courts reduce bail for nonviolent offenders, freeing up space for the violent. County supervisors are caught off guard.

February 25, 2009|Richard Winton and Garrett Therolf

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was in talks Tuesday with court officials to determine whether reducing bail for nonviolent offenders would cut jail overcrowding, discussions that came a day after he threatened to close the Men's Central Jail if hit with steep budget cuts.

Baca was examining the current bail schedule for nonviolent offenders, spokesman Steve Whitmore said. The sheriff does not have the power to change the bail schedule, which would require the support of judges as well as prosecutors and public defenders.

Whitmore said that if more low-level offenders could afford bail, fewer would be incarcerated at the jails, allowing the sheriff to house violent offenders longer.

Baca said Monday he was considering closing one or perhaps two jails to cope with expected budget cuts. Such closures would reduce the overall jail capacity by thousands, resulting in more early releases of offenders, he said.

The sheriff said that closing the aging downtown Los Angeles jail, which houses about 6,700 of the county's 18,000 jail inmates, might be necessary to bridge what he estimates will be a $72-million gap in his budget.

But he was criticized Tuesday by county supervisors who contend his threats are false.

County officials said they have requested that he draft preliminary plans to reduce his $2.5-billion budget by $62 million. Department heads throughout the county have been asked to draft budget cuts given economic realities.

Supervisors appeared caught off guard by Baca's proposal to release inmates and could not immediately offer detailed ways he could pare his budget.

The first meeting to discuss the sheriff's 2009-10 budget is scheduled for March 5. As an elected official, Baca enjoys wide discretion in how he spends the money he receives from the Board of Supervisors.

Setting up a potential showdown, some supervisors noted Tuesday that Baca's budget has grown for years and expressed doubt that jail closures would be his only recourse.

"If the sheriff can't find the savings, we're willing to help him," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, adding that the department's administration budget has increased by 151% over the last 10 years and that the patrol budget has increased by 115% over the same period.

"The amount of overtime the sheriff spends is a scandal," Yaroslavsky said.

More than a third of the hours worked by department personnel are paid at overtime rates, according to a recent county report.

Even the sheriff's staunchest political allies on the board said they do not believe Baca would be forced to close Men's Central Jail.

"The Board of Supervisors have placed public safety as a top priority. We have exempted those agencies from any hiring freeze, and a 5% cut should only result in administrative cuts," Supervisor Mike Antonovich said.

Aides to Antonovich said that $60 million in savings could be achieved just by increasing the use of video arraignments instead of transporting inmates from jail to court.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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