LOS ANGELES – The head of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department on Thursday delayed plans to release 400 jail prisoners to deal with a $100 million budget cut proposed by Los Angeles County supervisors.
Sheriff Lee Baca, in a budget battle with the board, had said he would release the inmates, who were charged with misdemeanors, starting at midnight Thursday.
The department, operating on a $1.6 billion budget, provides law enforcement for more than 2 million people in a 3,100-square-mile area and runs a vast jail system with 19,000 prisoners. It has more than 8,000 deputies and 5,000 civilian employees.
While intensifying his criticism of county supervisors, Baca said it would go against his “conscience” to release the inmates. He delayed the release until at least July 1.
“I can’t do things with 100 million dollars less money and not affect the way the whole system works,” Baca said.
The inmates that would have been freed were being held on bail amounts of $25,000 or less. They would have been released with orders to appear at their next court hearing.
Baca said the release would save his department $3 million to $4 million.
In a letter written to Superior Court judges earlier this week, Baca said that along with the prisoner release he would be forced to close the Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood, which can house up to 2,000 inmates daily.
“We have no choice,” said Al Scaduto, chief of correctional services for the Sheriff’s Department. “If we don’t have the funds to operate these facilities, we have no options.”
Supervising Criminal Judge Dan Oki wrote to fellow judges that the court was trying to determine whether Baca has the authority to release inmates once bail has been set.
Scaduto said state law gives the Sheriff’s Department the right to release inmates awaiting trial for misdemeanors.
Some county officials were outraged that Baca would consider releasing accused criminals and suggested other solutions.
District Attorney Steve Cooley responded to Baca’s plan by urging his staff to seek higher bails for defendants who they believe should remain behind bars.
If the budget cuts go through, sheriff’s officials said they also plan to cut staffing and eliminate specialized task forces.
Baca’s predecessor, Sherman Block, released about 3,000 inmates in March 1995 because of budget constraints.