The Sheriff and His Jails

Sheriff and JailsProp. 47 may have given the sheriff more power to manage his jails. Or not. The county needs an answer

Who runs the Los Angeles County jails? It’s a more complicated question than it might appear. It’s also a crucial question, going to the heart of the county’s effort to combat rising crime, wisely manage its resources, make it own policies and balance the powers that the law and voters parcel out among elected officials. And because of Proposition 47, the initiative that changed six felonies into misdemeanors and drastically reduced jail overcrowding, it’s a very current and pressing question. Credit Supervisor Sheila Kuehl for asking it, and the Board of Supervisors for demanding an answer by May 10.

The quick but too simplistic answer is that Sheriff Jim McDonnell runs the jails, subject to a host of statutes and court orders that impose various restrictions and grant some interesting flexibility. But how much flexibility?

Sheriffs … enjoy broad power to control the supply as well as the demand for jail space by regulating the number of misdemeanor suspects their deputies arrest in the first place.

What Kuehl really asked earlier this month, as the board considered a host of actions meant to help the county adapt to Proposition 47, is whether McDonnell is required by law to hold people convicted of misdemeanors for their full sentences when crowding is reduced and he has enough space to avoid releasing them early. If he isn’t, then is it his policy — and is it the board’s — to hold people longer anyway?

Many people would respond that of course, if a person is sentenced to year in jail, that’s how long he should serve. But even that’s not as simple as it might seem. If there were enough space to keep a person convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to the maximum 364 days, he would serve six months behind bars, earn an equal amount of time in good conduct credits and then be let out. That’s not early release. That’s been California law for decades. Inmates can lose their good conduct time, but rarely do.

Actual early release comes into play because of overcrowding and means that the inmate won’t serve even that six months. The Rutherford overcrowding lawsuit brought against the county in the 1970s resulted in a court order that capped the jail’s population. To stay within the limit, the sheriff is authorized under the order to release some inmates before they have completed their terms. Until November 2014, when voters passed Proposition 47, it was common for a male Los Angeles County inmate convicted of a misdemeanor to serve only 20% of his time. On a one-year sentence, in other words, the person would serve just over a month.


Los Angeles Times Editorial Board