3/5/2010 One sector that benefits from a bad economy: jail inmates

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Los Angeles Times

By Jack Leonard and Ruben Vives

March 5, 2010

At the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Jaime Iniguez was awakened Friday morning and told to get ready to leave.

Iniguez, 53, was serving a four-month sentence for drunk driving, his second DUI offense. He wasn’t scheduled to be released for another month.

“It’s time to celebrate,” said Iniguez as he put on his belt outside the downtown jail complex.

Iniguez is a member of a distinct group that benefits during a sour economy: jail inmates.

When times are flush, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has the money to keep jails open and staffed, and the vast majority of sentenced inmates serve most of their time behind bars.

But when times get tough and tax revenues shrink, the department has repeatedly looked to its jail operations to make cuts, freeing thousands of inmates who’ve served only a fraction of their sentences.

The length of jail stays has ebbed and flowed in tune with L.A. County’s budget for more than two decades, leaving the county during financial crunches with some of the weakest jail sentences in the nation.

Now the county is shifting back into those lean times. Faced with fresh budget woes, Sheriff Lee Baca announced this week that he has stepped up the early release of inmates, a move that could continue for weeks or months.

“It is like groundhog day — we see it over and over again,” said Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger. “When we have tough fiscal times and the economy turns bad, then the criminals get dumped out of the jails back into our neighborhoods.”

For years, there’s been broad agreement that the time inmates serve should not be dictated by the sheriff or the state of the economy.

But faced with cutting staff or releasing inmates, Baca has made a clear but difficult choice: “His main focus is to save jobs,” said sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore.

To address a gap of up to $128 million in his budget, Baca has made non-staff reductions elsewhere, including community-oriented policing programs, Whitmore said.

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