Commentary

No choice but to release criminals?

Folks often assume that Democracy will pressure the government sector to prioritize properly and make smart choices. After all, if a public agency really messes things up its incompetence could provoke bad press, hearings chaired by grandstanding politicians, and all sorts of unpleasantness. But too often those Democratic pressures do just the opposite. Agencies may prioritize poorly on purpose. It’s pretty common, for example, for public parks to close tourists’ favorite camping grounds first. Park officials can then share tourists’ outrage by claiming that their crummy little budget left them no choice but to close the most popular attractions. Now they have real leverage to demand more money. In other cases it may be unclear if agencies make bad choices on purpose or because their culture has simply forgotten the importance of prioritizing properly. Schools in Boston recently fired teachers and closed schools, but did not privatize janitorial services. Isn’t a school’s first priority teaching, not cleaning? And isn’t a jail’s first priority to keep criminals away from the rest of us? Apparently not in Los Angele where budget pressures that we would hope would spur more efficiency ââ?¬â?? like cutting non-essential services and saving money through privatization ââ?¬â?? have instead meant that criminals get to leave jail early. Are we to assume that the rest of the budget is as efficient as can be, and that releasing inmates early was the only way to cut costs? Here’s what precipitated all this: The inmate-reduction plan was borne out of the sheriff’s $84 million projected shortfall and a federal mandate requiring that jails do not become overcrowded. More than $15 million had to be cut from the custody operations by July 1, [Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Tom] Laing says, and that meant scaling back the county’s 22,950 beds to 17,500 a difference of 5,450 beds. That’s no small cut considering the sheriff’s department logged 14,804 new bookings or 700 people a day in July alone, Laing says. During that same period, the department released 16,400 inmates the majority of whom serves about 25 percent of their sentences. Here’s how the process “works”: The amount of time an inmate will serve depends largely on the nature of his crime and the number of inmates who need beds that day, Laing says. But, in general, the new early-release policy works this way: An inmate’s sentence is subtracted by the number of days he already has served in jail and automatically is cut in half based on the assumption that if the inmate were to receive good-time and work-time credits during the incarceration, he/she would get out after serving only half the term anyway. Unless the inmate has committed a particularly violent offense, the person likely will be let out after serving 10 to 25 percent of the remaining sentence. For instance, a thief who receives 180 days in jail with 10 days of time-served credit could be freed after serving as little as 10 percent of 85 days or nine days.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.