Survey finds most women in L.A. County jail are repeat offenders

Four out of five inmates surveyed had already served time behind bars. Many are homeless, poorly educated and struggling with substance abuse, a watchdog’s report says.

By Richard Winton
March 12, 2009

For years, the Los Angeles County jail has been a revolving door for the vast majority of its female inmates, many of whom are homeless, poorly educated and struggling with substance abuse, according a watchdog’s report released Wednesday.

Though not surprising, the findings in the report provide the most detailed examination yet of women in the nation’s largest women’s jail. According to a survey of inmates, 81% of women in custody had already served time behind bars — most of them in Los Angeles County. The report predicted that most of the inmates would be arrested again.

“For [the] first time . . . in real detail we know who these female inmates are,” Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the county supervisors, wrote in his semiannual report on the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jails. “It raises real questions about the need to end this recidivism.”

Bobb surveyed 330 female inmates in September and found that 45% were on probation and 22% were on parole at the time of their arrests. Nearly six in 10 had a history of substance abuse, and slightly more than half were unemployed or disabled when they were arrested. The inmates were disproportionately African American — 43% of the jail population compared with 10% in the county. Most inmates were single women with children under age 18. Most were awaiting trial and could not afford the bail to get out.

Roughly 32,000 women pass through the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood — the housing area for female inmates. It was built in the 1990s with cells around a small central area and has a daily inmate population of about 2,200.

Steve Whitmore, Sheriff Lee Baca’s spokesman, said the department recognizes that recidivism runs at 70% to 80% in the county jails but noted that the sheriff has implemented several educational programs aimed at reducing that number.

Bobb commended the sheriff’s programs but said more were needed. “The sheriff has some wonderful programs . . . but they only help a small number of inmates because there are few programs compared to the number of female inmates,” Bobb said in an interview.

Many inmates wanted to take part in the programs but didn’t know how to get into them, Bobb said.

Reducing the number of repeat offenders should be a priority for the sheriff because of chronic overcrowding problems, Bobb said.

Because of jail overcrowding, most women serve just 10% of their sentences — compared with slightly less than 70% for men. A female inmate whose sentence is less than 180 days is released immediately, Bobb wrote.

Substance abuse was predictably associated with recidivism, Bobb said. Of the women surveyed, 27% used cocaine and 22% used methamphetamines as the drug of choice.

Bobb’s survey of inmates also revealed a rift between them and jail staff. A majority of inmates said they believed some deputies were disrespectful and in some cases abused their power or discretion. Some inmates complained that they had seen deputies unnecessarily use force. In response, Bobb said the Sheriff Department needed to ensure the integrity of the complaint process. He recommended that it end a policy giving inmates only 15 days after an incident to file a complaint, noting that it violated state law.

In a positive development, Bobb praised the department for improving medical care for female inmates, which he had criticized in a previous report.

In his latest report, Bobb also tackled the issue of untested DNA evidence from rape and sexual assault kits. More than 800 kits involving unknown suspects have yet to be tested. They are part of a backlog of some 6,129 kits, which have been in storage areas. Baca recently implemented a program to test all kits.

Bobb recommended that a panel of sheriff’s officials and human rights organizations oversee the problem. He also said the sheriff should make immediate notifications to victims when evidence in their case had been tested. Bobb said it was critical that additional funds be secured to eliminate the backlog, noting that at least 311 cases were already beyond the statute of limitations in which to prosecute the crimes. An additional 106 were within six months of being barred, he said.

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