Inmate firefighters based at a camp in Azusa fight a Tehachapi wildfire. (Los Angeles Times )
In a bid to ease jail crowding and increase time served by serious criminal offenders, Los Angeles County supervisors agreed Tuesday to spend millions to house more than 500 inmates at government firefighting camps in mountain and foothill areas.
The $27-million, three-year deal will send 528 county inmates serving long-term sentences to five fire camps, jointly operated with the state prison system, that are scattered across the county.
Supervisors acted after some complained about the increasing number of criminals -- including some serving time for violent offenses -- who are being released after serving a fraction of their sentences.
As a result of budget cuts and so-called prison realignment, which shifted responsibility for some lower-level felons from state prison to county jails, inmates sentenced to county jail on some violent and sexual offenses currently serve 40% of their sentences. Lower-level offenders serve even smaller shares of their sentences.
Inmates coming to the county under realignment now make up 32% of the county's jail population. They are required to complete their full sentences, but now will be eligible to serve time in selected fire camps. That will free up county jail beds so other inmates can serve more of their sentences.
The county also is developing plans to rebuild its aging Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Consultant Vanir Construction estimated that adding enough beds to increase the average time served by traditional jail inmates to at least 50% of their sentences would boost the new jail's price tag by $359.7 million -- on top of the current $1 billion-plus cost estimate.
Other options examined included adding 500 beds at fire camps at a cost of $8.4 million a year, and spending $20.4 million a year to reopen shuttered housing units at the county’s Pitchess Detention Center East.
Contracting with a correctional facility in Taft, Calif., for similar bed space would cost about $11.3 million a year, the report found.
Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe asked county staff to bring the proposed Taft contract back for a board vote on Oct. 8. The county is facing possible competition from the state, which also has expressed an interest in contracting for bed space at the Taft prison.
Advocates for prisoners' rights urged the supervisors to focus on prevention and diversion programs, as well as releasing more inmates awaiting trial.
"We need to be looking at how to get people into community programs rather than looking at how to retain 7% of the population as long as possible," Mark-Anthony Johnson, an activist with Coalition to End Sheriff's Violence in L.A. Jails.
Expanding alternative sentencing options, including putting some offenders in supervised drug treatment rather than jail, would cost less than the various options being considered to increase bed space, but could take years to fully implement, officials reported.