Some county jail inmates headed to state fire camps

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As part of an ongoing effort to decrease the county's jail population, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a three-year, $27-million contract that would send hundreds of inmates to state firefighting camps.

The county jail population has grown by 3,100 since the state's prison realignment program, AB109, went into effect two years ago, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Designed to reduce the state prison population to alleviate unconstitutional overcrowding levels, realignment shifted responsibility for incarcerating lower-level felons to California's counties. 

A problem for counties has been not only housing the new load of offenders, but also taking in felons, who typically serve longer sentences than traditional county jail inmates. The new contract will move some of those felons out of jails and into firefighting camps run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Inmates who work in the fire camps would earn double credit for time served, reducing their sentences by half. Up to 528 inmates at a time would be sent to the camps.

Over the next few months, the Board of Supervisors is expected to make many decisions about the future of L.A. County's jail population. Sheriff Lee Baca continues to push for a construction project estimated to cost up to $1.6 billion to replace Men's Central Jail.

Supervisors have also expressed interest in curbing the sheriff's use of early releases to keep the jail population manageable. On Tuesday, Vanir Construction, a consulting firm hired to assess the county's jail population needs, told the board that constructing the space needed to house inmates for 75 percent of their sentences would cost the county an additional $675 million. 

In the coming weeks, the board is also expected to vote on whether to send L.A. inmates to a correctional facility in Taft at an annual cost of $11.3 million. The state, which formerly contracted with the facility, may be in competition with L.A. County for those beds. 

The county said it's also looking to different forms of incarceration, like substance abuse and rehabilitation programs that could earn reduced sentences. 

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