February 8, 2006
Safer streets -- and jails
WITH EACH NEW DEATH in Los Angeles County's jails, the pattern becomes more clear. Last weekend, the victim was a convicted sex offender — for unknown reasons housed with gang members — who was killed during a race-related riot by prisoners. Before that it was a mentally ill man who had been left in an unsupervised room with violent offenders. In perhaps the most chilling case, an inmate roamed undetected for hours through the Men's Central Jail in 2004 until he found the man who had testified against him in a murder case and strangled him.
It's possible that improper procedures by guards were a factor in inmate Wayne Tiznor's death Saturday at the North County Correctional Facility. Lapses by the Sheriff's Department at the jails are frightening and well-documented. But the larger issue is the lack of personnel. Sheriff Lee Baca's staff of 5,000 oversees more than 20,000 inmates; compare that to New York City, with a staff of 12,000 overseeing 15,000 inmates.
Not all the victims of the staffing shortage are prisoners. Homicides are up 15% in the areas patrolled by the department. At least half the killings were gang-related, yet the homicide division and the gang enforcement unit each operated at about 25% below authorized staffing levels last year. Baca has tried to address the shortage. Measure A, which would have imposed a half-cent sales tax in L.A. County to pay for 5,000 public safety personnel, attracted 59.6% of the vote in November 2004, far short of the two-thirds majority required for a tax hike.
Although more funding would help, the problem isn't that simple. The Sheriff's Department has the funds to hire 1,100 more deputies, but it can't hire people fast enough to make up for attrition. The fact that young deputies are involuntarily stuck with years of jail duty may help explain the high turnover. More incentives are needed to persuade young people to pursue careers in law enforcement.
On Tuesday, the Sheriff's Department announced that it would transfer the most violent offenders to the Twin Towers jail. The move might help, but it doesn't address the jails' chronic understaffing and oversight problems. For that, county supervisors should give more consideration to a proposal last year from their appointed jail monitor, attorney Merrick Bobb, who suggested creating a separate tier for deputies — with one group patrolling the city and the other on guard duty. Supervisor Gloria Molina expressed interest in permanent guards Tuesday, although so far no action has been taken.
It's possible that it would be just as hard to recruit jail guards as it now is to recruit deputies, and maybe harder. But the move could also help put more deputies on the streets while increasing the professionalism of jail personnel.
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