Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jail House Crock

I feel sorry for Paris Hilton.

Sure, she's a spolied, self-centered, morally compromised pseudo celebrity whose very fame has been created by a howling pack of paparazzi peddling their wares to gaudy fan mags and cable TV hacks.

Sure, she was caught driving her Bentley like a bumper car, full of booze but not remorse.

Sure, she was pulled over driving with a suspended license shortly after that. Sure, she then got nailed doing 70 in a 35 MPH zone with her lights out at night.

Sure, Paris blamed her handlers for her being caught behind the wheel twice while her driver's license was suspended. Asked whether she had understood the terms of the drunk-driving plea that she agreed to Hilton, said: "I just sign what people tell me to sign. I'm a very busy person."

Sure, some mean old judge then sentenced her to a jail term for violating her probation.

Sure, kindly Sheriff Lee Baca cut her loose after three days, citing medical problems, forcing her to spend the rest of her sentence under house arrest on the hard-scrabble grounds of her Hollywood mansion.

Sure, she immediately became a political football in a war between the Sheriff's Department and the Superior Court system over who has juristiction in such matters.

But even though her popularity ratings are lower than George Bush, poor Paris last week was subjected to treatment usually reserved for mass murderers.

First, a couple of beefy cops drag her out of her house. Then she's trussed up like Hannibal Lechter to appear before a judge.

Then she's led weeping out of the courtroom and back into jail to the loud applause of much of the free world.

Because she used every resource available to her to avoid jail, which I trust most of us would have done under similar circumstances, she incurred a public wrath so intense I half expected a lynch mop to appear at her front door, armed with torches and pitchforks.

How did this happen?

Pretend for a moment you're Lee Baca. Among your other responsibilities is overseeing an inmate population of 20,000, the largest jail system in the United States.

You know that 90% of the inmates in L.A. County jail are serious felons -- many held on murder charges or attempted murder charges.

Into this mix some judge has dropped Paris Hilton. By your yardstick, she's a low level offender and most female inmates serve 10 per cent of their sentences because of overcrowding.

Since she was sentenced to 45 days, 23 with time off for good behavior, she gets cut lose in 3 days, slightly more than 10 per cent of her sentence.

Besides that, you know that she's not behaving normally. She refuses to eat or drink for fear someone will take a photo of her on the toilet. She hasn't taken her medications and in your opinion, "she has severe problems."

You have two choices: keep her caged up to satisfy the public blood lust. Or discover the heir to the Hilton hotel fortune severely ill or dead of the cold stone floor of her jail cell.

It's a no brainer. Send her home with an ankle bracelet and confine her there for 45 days.

Let's face it. This case is about a lot more than Paris Hilton.

It's about a frustrated judiciary who has seen their sentences slashed by as much as 90 per cent due to overcrowding. And at least one judge is drawing a line in the sand.

"This has the strong potential to set up what will become an untenable precedent because of overcrowding in jail and the lack of adequate housing," Baca told the Los Angels Times.

In the last five years, the Sheriff's Department has released more than 200,000 inmates early, including some who ended up committing murders and other serious crimes when they otherwise would have been behind bars.

The releases were possible because of a nearly 20-year-old federal court order allowing the Los Angeles County sheriff to alleviate overcrowding by letting county offenders go home early.

Two hundred thousand, free to go. And we're in a rage over Paris Hilton?

In the meantime, Paris remains in jail, serving more time that she would have if her name was Jane Doe. Her very celebrity has been her undoing instead of her salvation.

And in a skewed bit of logic, the public is satisfied that justice has been served.

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