The state of California will begin shifting responsibility Saturday for tens of thousands of prisoners to local officials. The unprecedented change is under way because the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its dangerously overcrowded prisons.
County officials have had just months to plan for the influx of prisoners and parolees into their communities. Of all the prisoners and parolees leaving the state's system, the bulk are headed to Los Angeles County. Los Angeles is expecting to have to deal with 15,000 additional criminals.
And with just days before the big shift begins, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is not happy.
"This has all the markings of a bait and switch," Yaroslavsky says.
The state is sending Los Angeles County $120 million to take care of its prisoners for the next nine months. Yaroslavsky, who's been on the county board for 17 years, says he's seen the state play this game before.
"They promise us everything now, they shift this huge responsibility from the state to the counties now, and then a year or two or three from now, they will forget about that commitment, and it'll be — then was then and now is now, and we'll be left holding the bag," he says.
Everything Is Under Control — Or Is It?
Starting Oct. 1, that bag will start filling up quickly.
Criminals convicted of nonviolent crimes, mostly drug offenses, won't be sent off to state prison anymore — they'll be locked up locally. Officials say that will add about 7,000 prisoners to the already overcrowded jail. Plans are in the works to clear space with early releases and maybe rent jail space out of the county.
On top of more prisoners, there will also be more parolees. Nonviolent criminals released from state prison will now be placed under the supervision of L.A.'s already troubled probation department. In the first year, that could add as many as 8,000 cases to local officers' workloads.
Despite the startling statistics, L.A.'s Chief of Probation Donald Blevins has been telling residents everything is under control.
Last week, Blevins showed up at a South Los Angeles youth center to field questions from parolees and community members. He stood up and assured the crowd that the department is ready for the influx of parolees.
"I've been doing this for about 35 years. I've never seen a period of time where there is so much change with regard to the criminal justice system," he said. "I'll be honest with you: I think it's welcome change; I think it's time to do things differently."
Blevins said he's going to provide more rehabilitation programs, and he's confident that local officers can supervise parolees better than state officials. But within days of Blevins' upbeat comments, reports began surfacing that county supervisors were pushing him out and drawing up a severance package. Blevins is out of the country on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment. He is the fourth person to head the probation department in the past six years.
A Call For The Sheriff To Resign
On top of that turmoil, the county sheriff's office is under fire.
The FBI is looking into allegations of abuse of inmates in the county lock-up by sheriff's deputies. And on Wednesday, three civilian volunteers at the main men's jail, including two chaplains, filed sworn affidavits that they witnessed deputies beating subdued inmates.
"Civilian witnesses have never come forward before to corroborate what inmates have been telling us," says Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been complaining for years about alleged abuse by sheriff's deputies.
Eliasberg says concern is even greater now that thousands more prisoners will be supervised by sheriff's deputies.
"Well, they can't handle the group that they have, so I don't see how they could possibly be deemed capable or competent of handling more," he says.
The ACLU is calling on Sheriff Lee Baca to resign.
For his part, Baca says he's not going anywhere. He says there is plenty of oversight of his department — he's never been hesitant to discipline deputies, and his jails are open for inspection anytime.
"My word is probably the most trusted word of an elected official in this county," he says. "I'm not worried about my word. You know why? Because we have nothing to hide."
Baca says he's already cleared as many as 4,000 beds in the county for the new group of prisoners, and he plans to use more home detention and electronic-monitoring systems.
"The criminal justice system here has been on gridlock for the last 30 years," Baca says. "We're used to too much to do with too little. So are we somewhat overwhelmed? No. Will we have some difficulties? Yes. But what's new?"
What's new are the estimated 15,000 additional prisoners and parolees coming to test L.A.'s already strained criminal justice system.
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