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L.A. County jails' inmate count shows largest drop in nation

April 14, 2011 | 10:43 am

A prisoner leans on cell bars at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County jails showed the largest drop in inmate population of any jail system in the nation, according to recent numbers released by the U.S. Justice Department, a decrease that has come amid budget cuts and early inmate releases.

L.A. County's count dropped by more than 3,000 inmates during a yearlong span ending in June 2010, almost three times more than that of the next closest county in the nation.

That's a 15% difference for Los Angeles, well over the national average of about 2%, according to the federal data released Thursday.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has endured severe budget cuts of late. Before the cuts, male inmates convicted of misdemeanors were serving about 80% of their jail sentences, but are now typically released after serving just 20% of their time, according to Sheriff's Department data.

In the last year and a half, almost 5,000 fewer jail beds are available countywide, as Sheriff’s Department officials have been forced to shutter entire jail wings.

L.A. County's distinction comes as Sheriff’s Department officials prepare for a potential infusion of inmates from state prisons as part of Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to reduce the populations in California's chronically overcrowded state lockups and keep relatively low-level offenders closer to home.

Though other county officials are skeptical of the program, Sheriff Lee Baca is backing it, as long as it is fully funded. Still, Sheriff’s Department officials say the empty space in their jails will not necessarily translate to an easy intake of hundreds of state prisoners.

"If you look at our empty beds, that's really not the true story," said Chief Alexander Yim of the department's Correctional Services Division.

Beyond bed openings, the placement of inmates is restricted by security classifications and other factors. Along with early releases, Yim said other significant factors in the lower inmate count were fewer bookings countywide and a more flexible relationship with the state, which allowed the county to transfer inmates to prisons more efficiently.

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-- Robert Faturechi

Photo: Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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