Lawmakers Seek to Stem Flood of Inmates Into Downtown
Plan Would Force Sheriff's Department to Send Up to 800 Criminals a Day Back to Where They Were Arrested
by Chris Coates
Almost every hour on Bauchet Street, a wending, dead-end road on the northeastern edge of Downtown, inmates are released from the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Men's Central Jail. The nearly constant process adds up: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials say 500 to 800 a day filter through the street's Inmate Reception Center (IRC).
State Sen. Gil Cedillo (left) and state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez are pushing for new legislation that would restrict how prisoners are freed. Under the current system, the Sheriff's Department releases as many as 800 ex-cons in Downtown a day. Photos by Gary Leonard.
Many of them are greeted by family or friends and taken back home, or somewhere they can be cared for. But a large number emerge with little money or support, and end up in nearby Skid Row, where they are immersed in a community of high crime and dangerous conditions.
The Sheriff's Department's practice of releasing inmates into Downtown has long sparked outrage from community members. While recent accusations that some local law enforcement agencies are picking up people in other areas and dumping them in Downtown are attracting notice, observers contend that the flood of released inmates has long been a prime factor in the area's ballooning homeless population.
Now the issue is drawing attention, and state lawmakers are beginning a push to address the practice.
"It's a policy that serves no one," said state Sen. Gil Cedillo, who represents portions of Downtown. "It's unfair to service providers in Downtown because they're not equipped to address the problems. It's unfair to those who are in recovery."
Cedillo and state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez are shepherding new legislation that would force law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff's Department, to return released inmates to the area where they were first arrested. The measure tentatively called the Community Reunification Act would seek to reconnect ex-cons with family, friends and resources in their original neighborhoods. The proposal, expected to be written and ready for debate in January, would reduce the burden on Downtown Los Angeles and its social service organizations, Cedillo said.
"I think the entire region would be better served if we could reunify people with their communities," Cedillo said last week.
"It's a policy matter," he continued. "We can't figure out how you address the core issues of mental heath, poverty, homelessness [and] drug and alcohol abuse, when it's in an environment where you have thousands and thousands of people placed there by our policies."
Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca, said he could not comment on the proposed legislation until it is formally outlined. "There are just a plethora of questions that need to be answered and fleshed out," he said. "When they are, we will look at this [legislation] in the spirit it was written with a serious and critical eye."
Although in the early stage, the proposal is drawing praise from entities that work in Skid Row. Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association (CCEA), a community and business group, said that changing the release policy would improve conditions in the area.
"The issue is: What is it going to take to solve the problem? Getting the criminal predators off the street," she said.
Largest Jail in the Nation
At 4,084 square miles, Los Angeles County is the largest county in the United States - bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Not surprisingly, sheriff's deputies make a lot of arrests: 90,000 adults and 11,000 juveniles in 2004, according to the Sheriff's Department.
The department also takes in prisoners from other municipalities, including the city of Los Angeles. Overall the department handles about 20,000 inmates each day, housing them in a half-dozen correctional facilities scattered across the area.
Many of the high-risk offenders and those with long sentences are sent to Men's Central Jail, a boxy, low-slung complex east of Chinatown. With 6,800 inmates, it's the largest jail in the nation.
A short distance away is the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, a massive group of buildings where the inmates include female convicts and people with mental health issues.
The two facilities house a wide variety of offenders, Whitmore said. "Some are violent, some are nonviolent. We have women. It runs the gamut. We've got 4,000 gang members in Central Jail," he said.
Every day hundreds are released. According to department protocol, all are filtered through the IRC on Bauchet Street, where many are met by loved ones or friends.
However, those who do not get picked up or have no money can have a difficult time returning to the place where they were originally arrested, especially if they hail from a far-flung portion of the county like Gorman, 71 miles from Downtown. The result is that a significant number make their way to the homeless shelters and social service providers of Skid Row, less than a mile from the jails. In fact, Volunteers of America, a Skid Row social service provider, runs a shuttle from the jails to its Drop-in Center at 628 S. San Julian St. (Since 2001, the department has operated a Community Transition Unit, which can help former inmates with job training and finding housing.)
While it is unclear how many become a permanent part of the Downtown homeless population, a study last summer by the Downtown business group Central City Association found that 21% of 153 inmates surveyed at the IRC said they had no place to sleep the night of their release.
Cedillo thinks that situation could be addressed if the Sheriff's Department took inmates out of the risky environment and back to the area where they were arrested. This could be accomplished, he said, with the same buses that initially brought them to the Downtown jails.
"A bus drives out to these areas, picks people up and brings them Downtown, and then they're released. That same bus can take them back," Cedillo said.
Whitmore said the department has logistical concerns about the proposed change. He specifically pointed to questions of where released inmates would be dropped off. He said cases such as domestic violence could be particularly thorny.
"Do we take the person back to the address where the assault occurred?" he asked.
The longstanding conditions on Skid Row have only recently gained widespread attention among the media and public. In little more than two months, charges have been leveled against sheriff's deputies, suburban police departments and Los Angeles-area hospitals for sending homeless and mentally ill patients to Skid Row. Last month, Los Angeles Downtown News reported that state parole officers have helped house 110 sex offender parolees in Downtown (altogether 322 are in Downtown, including those who finished their parole but must still register their whereabouts). The community has the highest concentration of sex offenders in the city.
Cedillo said the current inmate release system fits into the overall conditions, and that he and Nunez are working on plans to improve the area's livability. "There's a lot of issues on Skid Row. I don't even call it homeless anymore," he said.
One option he mentioned is to create narcotics recovery zones around drug rehab centers, similar to the ones near schools, that would stiffen penalties for those caught peddling drugs in the area. Another move would create a community court system to direct repeat offenders to the social service program they need. "We want to have someone there that's a judge that operates a courthouse like a clearinghouse," Cedillo said.
Although even just addressing the issue of releasing inmates in Downtown is a long time coming, area proponents welcome the attention.
"We're looking at things that were assumed to be policies that couldn't be changed," said Lopez of the CCEA. "We need to look at all of the causes that keep Skid Row an abomination. There are a lot of reasons. It's not caused by one problem."
Kim Benjamin, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, said the inmate release system has long been a contentious issue.
"To simply use Downtown, and specifically Chinatown, as a dumping ground for inmates is inappropriate, and an unfair burden on a community already faced with blight," he said. "Our community is trying to rebuild. We don't need or want this kind of dumping in our community."