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LA County's top prosecutor embraces split sentencing

Jackie Lacey is currently the Chief Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Jackie Lacey has been L.A.'s top prosecutor for the past year and a half.

After years of resistance, L.A. County is poised to adopt a new split sentencing policy for non-violent felons that would mean less jail time for those convicted under 2011's prison realignment policy and more supervised release in the community.

L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey said she's instructed prosecutors in her office that the so-called split sentencing — in which offenders serve part of their sentence on community supervision — is a valuable tool and to begin asking for split sentences in appropriate cases.

Lacey said part of her reasoning for the policy shift is due to changes under prison realignment, the state's policy that shifts responsibility for lower-level would-be state prison inmates to California's counties.

Previously, nearly everyone leaving prison went on parole for one to three years. Now, that same population upon leaving jail gets released to the community without any supervision. 

That is, unless they're sentenced to split time. 

"It makes sense that we utilize this tool in order to make sure they successfully reintegrate into society and don't commit any new crimes," Lacey said.

While some counties (including many with limited jail space) have embraced split sentencing — such as Riverside County and Contra Costa County, which sentence 74 percent and 92 percent respectively of their lower-level felons to half time in jail and half time on supervised release — L.A. County's rate has hovered between 4 to 5 percent.

The resistance to split sentences in L.A. has come not just from the D.A.'s office, but also from judges and defendants, who don't necessarily want to be on community supervision.

L.A.'s prosecutors previously didn't embrace the new sentencing policy in part because the county resisted realignment in general, Lacey said. 

"The leadership of this office was worried about the safety of the public, under the prior D.A., and I was part of that administration," Lacey said. "Vocally opposed it, felt that realignment was being imposed on local residents too fast without a lot of thought."

Nearly three years later, there's been some evidence of that, Lacey said. But mostly, there hasn't been much data on anything realignment-related, which Lacey finds "frustrating."

A report by the Public Policy Institute of California released earlier this month found that realignment has not, at least so far, delivered on its promises of reducing recidivism among lower-level felons — but neither has it led to increases in crime (with the exception of car thefts in 2012). 

There's little data on split sentencing and its effects, though various studies over the years have suggested that community supervision, when done right, is an effective tool.

Now that realignment has sunk in a bit, Lacey is open to trying it out: "We've had a chance to realize the effects of it and realize that there are opportunities in here to give people a path out of a life of crime."

Lacey said she expects the number of split sentences in the county to change under the new policy. But she's not sure how quickly or by how much.

Anyone sentenced to split time will be transferred from jail to supervision by the L.A. County Probation Department.

Probation Chief Jerry Powers said he's not sure how many new offenders will be coming his way, but his department can handle it.

"Having the district attorney say that she's going to look at this and she's not opposed to it is important," Powers, who has pushed for more split sentencing in L.A. County said. "But you still have to get the judge to impose it. It's progress."

So far, the county's only seen about 700 people get split sentences, he said.

"We're ready for any increase. We can absorb it," Powers said.

Both Powers and Lacey believe the policy has the possibility to lower costs (community supervision is generally cheaper than housing someone in jail) and, potentially, reduce recidivism.

The new policy goes into effect immediately.