New at L.A. County Jail: inmates serve half sentences

The budget crunch has forced the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to release nonviolent offenders from the county jail after serving just 50 percent of their sentences, rather than 80 percent, which used to be the norm.

Nick Ut/AP
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca speaks at a news conference Feb. 17. The L.A. County Jail has begun releasing nonviolent offenders after they've served 50 percent of their sentences.

“I already didn’t feel safe in my own neighborhood,” says lifetime Sherman Oaks resident Ron Sorrentino. “Now this … it’s not good.”

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca released 343 nonviolent offenders from the county jail system this week, well before they had served their full sentences. The Sheriff’s Department says that budget cuts have forced changes to a longtime policy requiring inmates to serve at least 80 percent of their time before release. Now, those jailed for crimes such as check kiting, petty theft, and drunk driving will serve just 50 percent of their sentences.

Law enforcement is crying out louder than citizens like Sorrentino, analysts say.

“Cops know that many people serving time for nonviolent offenses may also have committed violent crimes for which they did not get caught. And even the nonviolent offenses are worrisome,” says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Petty theft may not be so petty if the victim is a poor person. Drunk driving can kill people. More important, early release undermines deterrence.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich says the plan makes a mockery of the criminal justice system. "Criminals are sent to jail to serve time for a crime," he said this week. "It's not a merry-go-round ride back to the streets."

But other analysts say the state is in such bad financial straits that there doesn’t seem to be any alternative.

“Counties are so bad off that some of them might be declaring bankruptcy soon,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University.

“Education – which is state and federally funded – is hands off, so [counties] end up going for health and prisons. It’s not a good idea to let violent criminals out early, but what are you going to do?”

Ms. O'Connor says Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed letting out only the older criminals who are less of a risk – because they are in their 70s and 80s – or moving them to less expensive facilities. The state trimmed $60 billion from its budget last year, only to face another $20 billion in cuts this year.

Schwarzenegger has also suggested privatizing the prison system, or sending inmates to other states where incarceration is cheaper. But O’Connor says the The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – the state prison guards' union – is so powerful that such ideas don’t get the traction they might otherwise.

“They are one of the most powerful unions in the state and they resist systemic change,” she says. “They are also a very wealthy contributor to Democrats.”

In the meantime, the public sense of peace is what is interrupted, analysts say. A recent early-release prisoner in Northern California committed both rape and murder.

The Sheriff's department contends that only the least violent offenders are released early, but Supervisor Antonovich urges caution on that point. "Many of the supposedly low-risk inmates have pleaded down from more serious offenses," he said.

“This is the fear generated when you let younger, violent criminals out,” says O’Connor. “The whole issue is part of the larger chess game of systemic reform needed in California.” She notes that one proposal now on the table would keep a lot more of the money at the regional level and prohibit the state from dipping into funds aimed for cities and counties. That in turn, would take the pressure off of counties to make cutbacks like these.

The L.A. Country Sheriff, the largest sheriff's department in the US, is considering another $128 million in cuts over the next 16 months from its nearly $1.3 billion general fund budget. About half of that savings would come from reductions in overtime and closing parts or all of some jails.

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