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Sheriff vows to fix ID errors that put hundreds in jail by mistake

December 27, 2011 |  2:43 pm

Lee Baca

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Tuesday that he will create a task force to minimize the wrongful jailings of people mistaken for wanted criminals.

Baca's move came in response to a Times investigation that found hundreds of people have been wrongly imprisoned inside Baca’s jails in recent years, with some spending weeks behind bars before authorities realized their true identities.

“It’s a horrible reality of what is basically the imperfect nature of the criminal justice system,” Baca said in an interview Tuesday. “No one who is an innocent person should ever be tied in with the criminal justice system.... There’s a difference between saying ‘I plead not guilty’; it’s another thing to say to anybody, ‘I’m not that person.’”

Video: Times reporter Robert Faturechi on problems at the L.A. County jails

Baca said his task force on the issue will likely be headed by his detectives chief, a patrol commander and a jail captain.

More than 1,480 wrongful incarcerations occurred in the last five years. Many of those mistakenly held inside the county's lockups had the same names as criminals or were the victims of identity theft.

The errors are so common that, in some years, people were being jailed because of mistaken identity an average of once a day.

The problems occurred because of breakdowns not just by jail officials but by police who arrest the wrong people -- and by the courts, which have issued warrants that did not precisely identify the right suspects.

Because some of these breakdowns occur outside his department, Baca said his task force would present its recommendations to other local police agencies, with the hope that they too would adopt the reforms.

“I’m looking at how do we really get to a place where the system works as smoothly as possible,” Baca said. “The original arresting agency has to, up front, do a better job in vetting the person.... This is going to require a lot of analysis and review.... We can’t say that we can’t do better, we can always do better, but I’m dependent on other police agencies to also do better.”

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-- Robert Faturechi

Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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