Friday, May 31, 2002
Baca Postpones Threatened Release of 400 County Jail Inmates Until July
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Sheriff Lee Baca yesterday delayed until July 1, when the next county fiscal year starts, his plan to release 400 county jail inmates to deal with a $100 million budget cut proposed by county officials.
Baca, in a budget battle with the Board of Supervisors, said Wednesday he would release inmates charged with misdemeanors starting one minute after midnight today. A department spokesman said Baca postponed the release to study it further.
“The sheriff decided to take a longer look at it and see what the overall effect is going to be,” Lt. Carl Deeley said.
The department, operating on a $1.6 billion budget, provides law enforcement for more than 2 million people in a 3,100-square-mile area and runs a vast jail system with 19,000 prisoners. It has more than 8,000 deputies and 5,000 civilian employees.
“He’s hoping the Board of Supervisors will relent in some way,” Deeley said.
While intensifying his criticism of county supervisors, Baca said it would go against his “conscience” to release the inmates.
“I can’t do things with $100 million less money and not affect the way the whole system works,” Baca said.
District Attorney Steve Cooley called the threatened inmate release a “metaphor” for the county’s budget crisis—and said he, too, required more money.
“Despite best efforts to cut, squeeze and trim, this office faces serious budget cuts in many vital areas,” Cooley said. “Already understaffed, we will be unable to provide services to the public in long-neglected areas.”
Cooley responded to Baca’s inmate release plan by urging his staff to seek higher bails for defendants who they believe should remain behind bars. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo followed suit, announcing yesterday at a news conference that his deputy city attorneys will also seek bails higher than $25,000 for misdemeanor offenders whom prosecutors believe should remain in jail.
Delgadillo said he sent a letter to the Los Angeles Superior Court urging judges to seriously consider the higher bails requested by prosecutors.
“I hope [county officials] do not balance the budget on the back of public safety,” Delgadillo said.
The inmates that would have been freed were being held on bail amounts of $25,000 or less. They would have been released with orders to appear at their next court hearing. Baca said misdemeanor inmates accused of domestic violence, crimes against children or probation violations would not be part of the release program he envisions.
Baca said the release would save his department $3 million to $4 million.
“I am not so firm as a community leader to say ‘the hell with everybody else, I’m just going to do what I’m going to do,”’ Baca said, referring to his decision to wait a while to implement the release program.
In a letter to Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge James Bascue earlier this week, Baca said that along with the prisoner release he would be forced to close the Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood, which can house up to 2,000 inmates daily. The Biscailuz Recovery Center, which can hold up to 200 inmates in alcohol and drug recovery and domestic violence rehabilitation, will also be closed, Deeley said.
Supervising Criminal Judge Dan Oki wrote to fellow judges that the court was trying to determine whether Baca has the authority to release inmates once bail has been set.
“The Los Angeles County Superior Court understands the fiscal challenges that confront both the Sheriff’s Department and the Board of Supervisors,” the court said in a statement released yesterday. “We are seeking clarification from Sheriff Baca concerning the range of offenses that would be affected by his order and its effective date.”
Deeley said Baca’s delay was not due to pressure from county or city officials to drop the proposal and look into other solutions to the budget crunch.
In his letter to the court, Baca urged the judges not to approve requested bails above the customary bail amounts because of the increased amount of bail it would take to keep an inmate in jail and warned that if the inmate population exceeds what the department can handle the department will begin releasing inmates.
Inmates would be released once they completed a minimum portion of their sentence based on a calculation by the department designed to keep the inmate level under the maximum capacity, Baca wrote.
An average stay in county jail is 40 days, Deeley said. But the inmate population has been steadily increasing since December, rising from 18,000 to 20,299 over the last six months.
That level is dangerously close to the department’s maximum capacity of 21,276, Deeley said.
But in the event of an overflow the South facility at Pitchess Detention Center in Saugus, which is currently closed, could be opened up barrack by barrack to accommodate the overflow inmates, Deeley said.
If the budget cuts go through, sheriff’s officials said they also plan to cut staffing and eliminate specialized task forces. A hiring freeze would also be instituted that will prevent him from replacing the 300-350 sworn personnel and 500 civilian workers who retire or leave the department every year.
Baca’s predecessor, Sherman Block, released about 3,000 inmates in March 1995 because of what he said were budget constraints.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company