When Peter Eliasberg heard the news Friday that a federal judge sentenced former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to three years in prison for his role in the jail inmate abuse scandal, the civil rights attorney who fought long and hard to oust Baca hardly celebrated.
“It’s a very sad day,” said Eliasberg, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and co-author of a 2011 report that helped shed light on how sheriff’s deputies were beating up inmates inside the jails.
Eliasberg called Baca's sentencing “a kind of capstone on a really ugly page in Los Angeles County history.”
The ACLU report included 69 declarations, most of them from inmates who had either experienced or witnessed beatings inside Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. It included statements from two jail chaplains appalled at the violence they were seeing.
At the time, Baca dismissed the allegations. He said the inmates were lying and that visitors to the jail would find a “hospital-like environment.”
For too long, people accepted that explanation from the sheriff, Eliasberg said, “including members of the Board of Supervisors.”
Earlier this year, a jury convicted Baca, 74, of obstruction of justice for trying to block a federal investigation into the abuses – the tenth and highest ranking sheriff’s official to be convicted in the scheme. Baca was also convicted of conspiracy and lying to federal investigators. The scandal forced his resignation in 2014.
Baca's prison term sends a message that nobody is above the law, Eliasberg said.
For Michael Holguin, three years behind bars isn't long enough for Baca. Holguin, 37, ended up in a wheelchair for six months in 2008 after deputies attacked him for what they perceived as disrespect. They broke his left tibia and left him needing eight stitches in his skull.
“He [Baca] wanted to blame everyone else for what was going on but he was the top guy,” Holguin said. “He should have been held to a higher standard.”
Paul Tanaka, Baca’s undersheriff and the man who oversaw the day-to-day effort to block the FBI investigation, was sentenced last year to five years in prison.
Ron Kaye, a civil rights attorney who has represented inmates, knows well the abuses that occurred behind jail walls at the sheriff’s department.
“I’ve had clients who’ve had their orbital eye sockets broken, their legs broken,” Kaye said. “They will never be whole again.”
But Kaye believes Baca, who is suffering from third stage Alzheimer’s disease, should have been spared prison time.
“My feeling is he has a limited amount of time on earth in which he will be able to be coherent, to be able to enjoy the people he loves,” said Kaye, echoing the plea from Baca's defense attorney Nathan Hochman. “I think there should have been some compassion toward that.”
Even the federal prosecutors who argued the case against Baca recommended he spend only two years in prison, not three.
Judge Percy Anderson said he considered Baca’s Alzheimer’s as well as some of the good he did as sheriff, and reduced the sentence from the federal guidelines of 41 to 51 months.
But Anderson, who rejected a deal between prosecutors and Baca that called for not more than six months in prison, said the former sheriff needed to spend more time behind bars because of the seriousness of his crime.
Kaye expressed frustration at that idea. He argued Baca already has “suffered tremendously” from his prosecution and that prison time would serve no deterrent effect.
“Other law enforcement leaders now know the federal government will prosecute you if you violate civil rights,” Kaye said. “To be ‘tough on crime’ just for the principle itself makes no sense.”
It’s unclear how many inmates were beaten during the worst years of the jail violence, from 2008 to 2012, Eliasberg said.
“We will never know because many inmates never came forward because they feared retaliation by deputies,” he said. “It was not a handful,” Eliasberg said.