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L.A. County jails a revolving door for female inmates [UPDATED]

March 11, 2009 | 12:20 pm

Baca For years, the Los Angeles County jail has been a revolving door for the vast majority of its female inmates, many of whom are homeless, poorly educated and struggling with substance abuse, according to a watchdog’s report released today.

Though not surprising, the findings in the report provide the most detailed examination yet of women in the nation’s largest women’s jail facility. According to a survey of inmates, 81% of women in custody have served time behind bars in the past -- most of them in Los Angeles County. The report predicted that most of the inmates were likely to come back in the future.

“Many of them report that they cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for years,” Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the county supervisors, wrote in his semiannual report on the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jails.

Seeking to address the needs of female inmates, Bobb surveyed 330 of them in September and found that 45% were on probation and 22% on parole at the time of their arrests. Nearly six out of 10 had a history of substance abuse, and slightly more than half were unemployed or disabled when they were arrested. The inmates were disproportionately African American -- 43% of the jail population, compared to 10% in the county.

Most were single women with children under 18 years old. Most were awaiting trial and could not afford the bail to get out.

Roughly 32,000 women pass through the women’s jail system annually at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, Bobb reported. It is a modern 1990s jail facility with cells built around a small central area that houses about 2,200 inmates daily.

Bobb found that the jail staff and deputies were professional and provided a number of good programs to inmates aimed at reducing the recidivism rate but that the department lacked the resources to serve more inmates.

Bobb also noted that many inmates said they wanted to take part in the programs but didn’t understand how to get into them. Bobb recommended that the Sheriff’s Department post written information on programs and educational classes in each housing area.

According to Bobb, the sheriff could ease overcrowding of the jail by reducing the number of repeat offenders. "Early release programs are prompted by jail overcrowding."

Because of jail overcrowding, most women serve just 10% of their sentences -- compared to slightly less than 70% for men. Overcrowding has forced the department to immediately release "any inmate whose sentence is less than 180 days," Bobb wrote.

Substance abuse, Bobb found, was predictably associated with recidivism. Of the women surveyed, 27% used cocaine and 22% methamphetamines as the drug of choice. He commended several detox programs inside the jail, saying such programs are a key way to reduce repeat offenders.

Updated, 12:30 p.m.: Bobb also tackled the issue of untested DNA evidence in the massive sheriff’s backlog of rape and sexual assault kits. More than 800 kits involving unknown suspects have yet to be tested. They are part of about 6,129 kits in storage. He called for better oversight with a panel of sheriff’s officials and human rights organizations and immediate notification to victims about whether their sexual assault evidence had been tested, regardless if a suspect is known.

Bobb said it is critical that additional funds be secured to eliminate the backlog. He noted that at least 311 cases are already beyond the various rape and sexual assault statute of limitations and 106 within six months of being barred.

For months, sheriff officials sought to downplay concerns over a massive backlog of untested DNA evidence by suggesting the crimes had been resolved by other means. But once the problem unfolded, the sheriff ordered all rape kits tested.

-- Richard Winton