To save money, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is releasing an average of 130 criminals a day from jails after they have served only a fraction of their sentences, a windfall to convicts that police, prosecutors and judges say is undermining the local justice system, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Rather than shrink street patrols, Baca said he is trying to counteract multimillion-dollar budget cuts by releasing inmates early – more than 47,500 in the last year. Those freed include robbers, car thieves, stalkers, drunk drivers and abusive spouses.
With some offenders serving as little as 10% of their sentences, criminals now seem to prefer jail over community service. Petty criminals know they will be back on the streets in less than a day. And judges complain that they no longer decide punishment, jailers do.
Although early releases are mostly restricted to nonviolent offenders, District Attorney Steve Cooley said they had a “collateral effect” in the battle to fight crime. Without proper punishment, he said, the efforts of police, prosecutors and courts are reduced to a system of “catch and release.”
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Baca’s early release of convicts undercuts the LAPD’s so-called broken windows strategy, which is based on the notion that punishing lesser offenses leads to reductions in major crime. The LAPD last year increased arrests for misdemeanors by 12% over 2002, taking 12,500 additional people into custody.
Baca said he had little choice.
“I am handcuffed, straitjacketed by the budget of this county,” said the sheriff, who runs the jails as head of California’s largest law enforcement agency.