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Sheriff threatens to shut down a county jail because of cutbacks

June 26, 2009 |  6:47 pm

PitchessLos Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is threatening to close one of the county's five jails next week if he is forced to cut $25 million from his $2.5-billion budget.

Baca sent a letter to county supervisors today saying that in order to cut costs he plans to shut down the 1,600-bed North Facility at Pitchess Detention Centerin Castaic on Wednesday. He told the supervisors that he will release some of those inmates early and transfer others to already overcrowded jails, according to sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore.

The 187 staff members currently working at Pitchess will be reassigned, Baca wrote.

Whitmore said Baca was reluctant to propose the closure. “This is the last thing he wants to do,” Whitmore said.

Baca wrote that closing the jail will “potentially result in an increase in inmate violence and a resultant increase in the use of force.”

Whitmore said sheriff’s staffers are already planning for the potential closure.

“This is not just a red herring. This is something that is seriously being considered,” Whitmore said. “If the budgets continue this way, he might have to close portions of other jails. Everything’s being looked at.”

Baca also proposed lowering bail for non-violent offenders so that they can be released early, “in an attempt to further relieve jail overcrowding.”

It would not be the first time Baca has shut down jails or released inmates early. In mid-2002, faced with cuts amid a county budget crisis, Baca began wide-scale early releases, saying he was unwilling to cut on-the-street deputies. Over the next four years, nearly 200,000 inmates were released early, the vast majority walking out after serving no more than 10% of their sentences.

In this budget go-around, Baca already has cut $31.6 million from his budget, eliminating 51 vacant positions. In his letter, he complained that he is now facing a $103-million budget shortfall fueled by overtime costs because of understaffing.

He suggested county leaders pay for his $25-million cut with utility user tax revenue and provide him with an additional $5.6 million for security patrols at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center jail ward and $8.3 million for testing DNA evidence from thousands of backlogged rape and sexual assault cases.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich has asked the sheriff and county staff to discuss the department’s budget before the board on Tuesday.

“The board passed the budget with the full support of the sheriff,and our office was assured that any cuts to the department would not affect jails or patrols,” said Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell.

The sheriff has not yet made plans to attend the meeting, Whitmore said.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Bacaletter  Read Baca's letter to L.A. County Supervisors

Related stories from the archives:

Releasing Inmates Early Has a Costly Human Toll

Early release rules to be revised

Photo: Sheriff's cars arrive at the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic after a 2006 riot at one of the jails in the 34-acre complex. Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times