L.A.’s Busiest Crooks to Do More Time

From the Los Angeles Times

Police and prosecutors focus on the 10% behind half the crime. Civil libertarians are wary.
By Patrick McGreevy
Times Staff Writer, May 8, 2006

Working from research showing that 10% of criminals commit up to half of all crime, Los Angeles police officials and prosecutors have agreed on a program to seek the stiffest possible penalties for the most frequent repeat offenders, even for relatively minor crimes.

The so-called 10 percenter program, which could begin operating in Los Angeles County courtrooms this summer, aims to reduce crime on the streets by keeping repeat criminals behind bars as long as possible. Police Chief William J. Bratton said that would help the Los Angeles Police Department, which has fewer officers per capita than other major cities.

“With our limited resources, we can’t do everything, everywhere, all at the same time,” Bratton said. “This gives us the maximum bang for the buck by focusing on that 10%.”

The program does not require passage of any laws but rather involves police and prosecutors working together to identify repeat offenders. They will use a new, standardized form to document why convicted criminals merit special attention, then ask judges to sentence them to the maximum amount of time possible.

In some cases, repeat offenders will be spotted through court records, which list convictions. But in others, those targeted for longer sentences will be identified based on police reports, intelligence data and arrests or other accusations that did not result in convictions. That material is not admissible against a defendant during a trial but can be considered by a prosecutor in deciding what penalty to seek and by a judge at sentencing.

The program has raised red flags among civil libertarians and defense attorneys, who fear it could be abused.

The brainchild of Assistant Chief George Gascon, the 10 percenter program holds that because those who commit major crimes tend also to be responsible for minor ones, locking up criminals who repeatedly commit minor offenses could help protect the city from their more serious crimes. Though the idea remains a novel one, some Los Angeles officials are embracing it.

Gascon said studies done throughout the country have concluded that 10% of suspects commit 50% of crimes, 10% of crime victims are involved in 40% of crimes and 10% of crime locations are involved in 60% of crimes.

Taking into account those factors is a strategy that is especially important for an understaffed department like the LAPD. Los Angeles, with 3.8 million residents, has 9,314 police officers. Chicago, by contrast, has 2.9 million people and 13,500 officers.

The LAPD has been focusing enforcement on 10 percenter criminals for more than a year, but now the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has agreed to carry the program into the courtroom.

After an identified 10 percenter is charged with a crime, LAPD officials say, prosecutors have the authority to help determine the eventual punishment, including whether the person is sentenced to state prison, goes to county jail or gets probation.

Prosecutors can offer plea bargains that result in reduced sentences, and they have some discretion in recommending sentences. Currently, they often look at a person’s rap sheet of convictions, but there is no formal mechanism for police officers to provide additional information about the person’s criminal history.

Prosecutors have discretion to ask for the most severe penalty that’s appropriate, but they need evidence that it is justified, said Janet Moore, director of central operations for the district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors have discretion to ask for the most severe penalty that’s appropriate, but they need evidence that it is justified, said Janet Moore, director of central operations for the district attorney’s office.

In a series of meetings during the last few months, police and prosecutors have agreed on the basic rules of the program. Now they are developing a standard form that will be filled out by officers to provide information that justifies seeking more jail time, Moore said.

Police “are making a request that we look at the person more carefully,” Moore said. “It is incumbent on the officer to designate a person as a 10 percenter. They must explain to us why that designation is justified. There has to be a solid basis in law for doing so.”

Lt. Tom Murrell of the LAPD’s Foothill Division said some 10 percenters don’t have long histories of convictions on their rap sheets, but there can be evidence that they were involved in other crimes.

After a person is arrested, officers can look through past arrest reports to determine whether there are similarities to other cases. For example, a robber might have used the same words in shaking down victims in several instances. If that information is added to the rap sheets provided to prosecutors, it could provide a basis for seeking a tougher penalty.

“If the LAPD is able to show us the designation is justified, we will try to seek the maximum penalty that is appropriate,” Moore said.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who likes the concept, said his office might expand the program to include other cities in the county if it works in Los Angeles.

However, the idea that some offenders would get treatment different from others has raised red flags with civil libertarians and defense attorneys, who say they plan to scrutinize the program rules when they are finalized.

“We would be very concerned if people are targeting individuals that someone perceives to be [a problem] without hard evidence,” said Robert E. Kalunian, chief public defender for Los Angeles County.

Others see parallels with the state’s controversial “three strikes” law, which requires sentences of 25 years to life for a felony if a person has been previously convicted of two violent or serious offenses.

Others see parallels with the state’s controversial “three strikes” law, which requires sentences of 25 years to life for a felony if a person has been previously convicted of two violent or serious offenses.

“Over-incarceration doesn’t work,” said Geri Silva, executive director of the L.A.-based Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes. Silva said a repeat-offender burglar may be stealing to support a drug habit, so a better solution might be drug rehabilitation.

Catherine Lhamon, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the program could open the door for illegal profiling of suspects.

Cooley said he was aware of the potential concerns. He has been assured by his top deputies that the program would have appropriate safeguards.

“Where you target certain offenders, you have to make sure you are not profiling. You have to make sure the criterion is based upon something that is otherwise lawful, like a prior criminal history,” Cooley said. “You can’t have it left to some officer’s sense that this is a bad guy. It has to be something they can document.”

Gascon said each of the LAPD’s 19 divisions maintains a list of 15 to 30 people in their areas that they believe are disproportionately involved in crime and who should be closely monitored. A coordinator at each station manages the list.

In most cases, stations simply use the list to make officers more aware of suspected repeat offenders, but they can put a person under surveillance if he or she is believed to be on a crime spree, police said.

Murrell provided an example of how his Foothill Division detectives use their list, which includes a 41-year-old man who has 14 felony bookings on burglary and narcotics charges and five convictions dating to the 1980s.

Ten of his arrests involve crimes committed in two reporting districts of the Foothill Division, so detectives know to look at him if there is a string of burglaries in those neighborhoods. The man’s file indicates that prosecutors repeatedly refused to file minor charges or agreed to lesser charges as part of plea bargains, so he has served little time during his three stints in prison.

Murrell said that without the additional information developed by officers from police reports and other sources as part of the 10 percenter program, prosecutors might not get the full picture.

One challenge the program must overcome is the overcrowding of jails, which frequently causes the county Sheriff’s Department to release criminals early. However, prosecutors can seek state prison as an alternative for serious offenders.

In addition, the LAPD has assigned an officer in the jail system to alert deputies about repeat offenders who are considered serious threats to the community and who should not be considered for early release.

In one recent case, a 10 percenter convicted of auto theft was sentenced to 270 days in jail and could have been released after 27 days, but an alert by the LAPD liaison resulted in the repeat offender’s serving 150 days.

“The advantage to the community if we keep someone like this in jail for a couple of extra months is that is time when there is less crime in the community,” Murrell said. “It buys the community some time.”