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Los Angeles County Jail Continues To Over-Incarcerate

by John E. Dannenberg

After paying $27 million (up to $5,000 per plaintiff) to settle class action lawsuits in 1991 for failing to timely release prisoners from county jail (see PLN, Jan. 2003, p.14), Los Angeles (L.A.) County is still making similar mistakes and paying penalties. In the twelve month period ending in June 2005, records of the L.A. County Sheriffs Department showed that they jailed 66 prisoners who either had never been charged with crimes or who had been court-ordered to be released.

Juan Avalos, a Mexican immigrant living in Orange County with his wife and four children, used to have two jobs. But he lost them when L.A. Sheriffs deputies arrested him in 2004 on an Orange County probation violation warrant and held him for 73 days without any due process. When L.A. County Jail officials realized he had never been taken to Orange County to face a judge, they gave him a check for $500 conditioned upon his signing a waiver to his right to sue for false imprisonment.

Not speaking English, Avalos signed the dotted line and took the money.
While L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said that no illegal incarceration is acceptable, he opined that only 66 mistakes among 200,000 arrestees in twelve months is not indicative of a major problem. And the clerk in Avalos case who failed to alert Orange County was reprimanded and transferred, he added. It is doubtful he would say the same thing if 66 prisoners were mistakenly released during this period as well.

Noted prisoners rights attorney Stephen Yagman, who is representing other L.A. County Jail prisoners in false incarceration suits, believes it is wrong for the County to negotiate with prisoners for their freedom, when it is statutorily owed them. Thus, Avalos, after eleven weeks of false imprisonment, was wrongfully induced into accepting $7/day as a condition against further illegal incarceration.

After all the past lawsuits, and with more pending, L.A. County Jail still relies upon a manual system for tracking such releases. As long as Jail officials can find takers for their $500 get-out-of-jail-now extortion, the problem, it appears, will not go away.

Source: Los Angeles Times.

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