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One sector that benefits from a bad economy: jail inmates

Tough times prompt the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to free inmates who've served only a fraction of their sentences.

March 05, 2010|By Jack Leonard and Ruben Vives

At the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Jaime Iniguez was awakened Friday morning and told to get ready to leave.

Iniguez, 53, was serving a four-month sentence for drunk driving, his second DUI offense. He wasn't scheduled to be released for another month.

"It's time to celebrate," said Iniguez as he put on his belt outside the downtown jail complex.

Iniguez is a member of a distinct group that benefits during a sour economy: jail inmates.

When times are flush, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has the money to keep jails open and staffed, and the vast majority of sentenced inmates serve most of their time behind bars.

But when times get tough and tax revenues shrink, the department has repeatedly looked to its jail operations to make cuts, freeing thousands of inmates who've served only a fraction of their sentences.

The length of jail stays has ebbed and flowed in tune with L.A. County's budget for more than two decades, leaving the county during financial crunches with some of the weakest jail sentences in the nation.

Now the county is shifting back into those lean times. Faced with fresh budget woes, Sheriff Lee Baca announced this week that he has stepped up the early release of inmates, a move that could continue for weeks or months.

"It is like groundhog day -- we see it over and over again," said Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger. "When we have tough fiscal times and the economy turns bad, then the criminals get dumped out of the jails back into our neighborhoods."

For years, there's been broad agreement that the time inmates serve should not be dictated by the sheriff or the state of the economy.

But faced with cutting staff or releasing inmates, Baca has made a clear but difficult choice: "His main focus is to save jobs," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

To address a gap of up to $128 million in his budget, Baca has made non-staff reductions elsewhere, including community-oriented policing programs, Whitmore said.

David Janssen, a former county chief executive who now teaches local government finance and administration at UC San Diego, said much of the county's budget is untouchable because it is protected from reductions by state and federal laws. That leaves the jails as one of the few areas where cuts can be made.

"If the sheriff is sitting there and saying, my only choice is to reduce patrol or to reduce jails, which are you going to do?" Janssen said.

The early releases have alarmed victims' rights groups. Reducing sentences for offenders like Iniguez undermines any deterrent effect that jail might have on drunk drivers, said Gail Butler, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, California.

"It disturbs us greatly," Butler said. "We consider DUI to be a violent crime."

A generation ago, few inmates left L.A.'s jails early. In the early 1980s, inmates in the nation's largest jail system were squeezed into hallways and even onto the roof of the Men's Central Jail. Conditions were so bad that a federal judge ruled they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The early releases began in 1988 as a stopgap measure to ease the overcrowding. But over the years, they became a near-constant.

In reaction to the recession of the early 1990s, then-Sheriff Sherman Block closed several areas of his jails in high-profile battles with the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the department's budget. By 1996, on average, defendants were serving less than 25% of their jail sentences.

An economic rebound at the end of the decade helped the department slow the releases to a trickle. But the dot-com bust of the early 2000s struck state and local government coffers hard. Citing budget woes, Baca began closing jails anew.

Between 2002 and 2006, more than 150,000 inmates were freed early after they had served just a fraction of their sentences. A 2006 Times investigation found that nearly 16,000 inmates released early were rearrested while they were supposed to be in jail. Sixteen were charged with murder.

"Early release is a mockery of the justice system," said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a longtime critic of early releases. "Criminals are sent to jail to serve time for a crime, not a merry-go-round ride back to the streets."

In 2006, after deadly jail riots and growing concern about early releases, the Board of Supervisors approved a $258-million plan for new jail construction and to reopen the old Sybil Brand Institute for Women. But the plan stalled.

Nevertheless, sheriff's officials managed to increase jail stays for the vast majority of inmates, helped in part by the housing boom of the mid-2000s that raised property tax revenue for the county.

The state also helped by speeding up the time it takes to transport inmates to prison after they have been sentenced, freeing up valuable jail space. And sheriff's officials sought ways to make use of alternative sentencing programs, such as work furlough and electronic monitoring at home.

Until this week, all male inmates served at least 80% of their jail time. Most women still serve only 20%.

On Tuesday, the department began freeing male inmates sentenced for nonviolent offenses -- such as drunk driving -- after they'd served 50% of their time. Sheriff's officials said they hoped the practice would be short-lived.

Meanwhile, outside the jail Friday, inmates like Luis Reyes were not complaining. Reyes, 26, was arrested two weeks ago for failing to show up to court and to fulfill an earlier community service sentence. He was sentenced to 43 days but was released early Friday.

"It's sad that we're in this [economic] mess," Reyes said with a smile, "but it's good for me because I'm not in jail anymore."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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