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Los Angeles County to send 500 inmates to fire camps

The move is a way to ease crowding in L.A. County jails and avoid early releases resulting from the state's realignment program.

September 17, 2013|By Abby Sewell and Seema Mehta
  • Jean Thaxton, center left, and other supporters of creating a permanent citizens commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department attend Tuesday's meeting of the L.A. County supervisors. The board postponed the vote on the proposal.
Jean Thaxton, center left, and other supporters of creating a permanent… (Cheryl A. Guerrero, Los…)

Los Angeles County supervisors have agreed to shift more than 500 inmates to mountain-area firefighting camps across the region in a bid to ease jail crowding and increase the amount of time serious criminal offenders remain behind bars.

The move marks the latest attempt by county officials to deal with the effects of a federal court order that forced California to reduce its prison population. Under so-called realignment, California officials are redirecting lower-level felons to local lockups, which has swelled the county's jail population and caused some local inmates to be released long before they finish their sentences.

A Times analysis last month found that the Sheriff's Department has released more than 23,000 inmates early this year — including some accused of violent crimes and sex offenses — a sharp increase over previous years.

Some criminals sentenced to county jail for violent or sexual offenses now are serving just 40% of their jail terms, records show. Lower-level offenders serve even smaller portions of their sentences.

State prisoners sent to county jails are not eligible for early release. As a result, they now account for about one-third of the L.A. County jail population and several county lockups are significantly over capacity.

With Tuesday's action, qualifying state inmates will be eligible to serve time at five fire camps jointly run by the county Fire Department and the state prison system. The camps have traditionally housed state inmates, but their use decreased under the realignment program.

County supervisors agreed to pay the state $27 million to house 528 inmates at the camps over the next three years. That will free up beds so more county inmates serve longer sentences, officials said.

The camps are located in mountain and foothill areas throughout the county, including near Acton, Malibu and in the Angeles National Forest. Inmates assigned to the camps must be nonviolent offenders and complete physical and security screening. They will be trained by county firefighters to help fight fires and assist with clearing debris from flood control basins.

In exchange, the inmates will be able to earn extra credit and shorten their sentences. State corrections officers provide security at the camps, but periodically inmates have escaped.

In addition to grappling with the effects of realignment, county officials are facing federal investigations of alleged inmate abuse and inadequate mental health treatment in the jails. Eventually, the county Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Lee Baca hope to rebuild the aging Men's Central Jail and overhaul other facilities, an ambitious improvement program with an expected price tag of more than $1 billion.

In the interim, sending inmates to fire camps is the most cost-effective way to curb early releases of inmates, officials said.

The county also has explored sending inmates to a Kern County correctional facility run by the city of Taft. Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe asked county staff to bring back to the board a proposed $11.3-million-a-year contract with Taft for 500 prison beds in two weeks.

"The jail system is one of the ways in which the county fulfills its obligation to protect the safety of its citizens," Knabe and Antonovich wrote. "Releasing serious and violent inmates into the community early dilutes justice for the victims and undermines the justice system as a whole."

Dozens of people at Tuesday's county board meeting voiced opposition to spending more money on prison beds, saying incarceration was a failed policy that disproportionately affects poor and minority communities and fails to address the causes of crime.

They urged more focus on prevention and diversion programs and releasing more inmates who are awaiting trial.

"We need to be looking at how to get people into community programs rather than looking at how to retain [offenders] as long as possible," said Mark-Anthony Johnson, an activist with Coalition to End Sheriff's Violence in L.A. Jails.

Peter Eliasberg, the legal director of ACLU of Southern California, reminded supervisors that the county faced federal scrutiny over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in the 1990s and built what was then billed as a "state-of-the-art" jail, known as Twin Towers. The massive jail proved to be "a disaster," Eliasberg said.

"It didn't work last time, and it's not going to work this time," Eliasberg said. The best solution would be to remove nonviolent prisoners with mental illness who did not commit sexual crimes "out of the jails and into community-based treatment," he said.

The supervisors also postponed a vote on a proposal to set up a permanent citizens commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department.

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