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L.A. jails nearing capacity, inmate releases considered

November 10, 2011 |  4:38 pm

Los Angeles County’s jails could run out of space as early as next month due to an influx of state prisoners, prompting officials to consider releasing potentially thousands inmates awaiting trial.

The state’s new prison law, known as realignment, is expected to send as many as 8,000 offenders who would normally go to state prisons into the Los Angeles  County jails in the next year.

Currently, defendants awaiting trial account for 70% of the jail population, but Sheriff Lee Baca said that might need to drop to 50%. The department is studying a major expansion of it electronic monitoring and home detention programs to keep track of inmates who are released.

Baca said the department is also developing a new risk-assessment system designed to be better identify which inmates are the best candidates to leave the jails.

Additional, the department is looking at ways to channel more offenders into education and substance abuse programs rather than jail.

An internal report by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and obtained by The Times estimated that the county jails would be full sometime by the end of the year. The Sheriff’s Department only has the funding to open an additional 1,800 beds, far below the number needed to accommodate the tide of state prisoners coming its way, the report said.

The realignment plan, developed to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision on overcrowding in the state prison system, has generated dire warnings from local police and prosecutors who fear the shift will place more offenders on the streets and increase crime. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has predicted that the city could see a 3% increase in crime because of realignment.

There is special concern about releasing more defendants before trial, with prosecutors fearing some defendants might not show up for court. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he also worries that inmate on electronic monitors could intimidate witnesses or take other actions to disrupt their trials.

Early release of inmates from the Los Angeles jails system has been a reality for years.

The jails are under a federal court order to prevent overcrowding, forcing the Sheriff’s Department to release inmates before they serve their full sentences. The extent of early release has fluctuated over time, depending on funding issues and the size of the jail population.

Between 2002 and 2006, more than 150,000 inmates walked free after serving a fraction of their sentences -- many of them less than 10%. A 2006 Times investigation found that almost 16,000 inmates released early were rearrested while they were supposed to still be in jail. Sixteen were charged with murder.

More recently, sheriff’s officials said they have reduced the amount of early releases.


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Photo: An L.A. County sheriff's deputy walks past inmates during an inspection at the L.A. County Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times