Updated at the bottom with strong allegations from an ACLU attorney.

For some inmates L.A. County Jail is like the “Hotel California” — You can check-out any time you like / But you can never leave.

At least that's what the ACLU of Southern California claims in a lawsuit announced today. The group is suing the L.A. County Sheriff's Department (LASD) for holding onto “tens of thousands” of folks “for days beyond their release date” as a result of federal immigration holds.

Now, you might say, sure, but if the feds want to keep 'em behind bars, then that's legit:

Well, not exactly, says the ACLU.

A spokesman explained to the Weekly that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds are voluntary for sheriff's officials and only cover 48 hours maximum anyway.

So, at a time when Sheriff Lee Baca says jails are sorely overcrowded and that he needs more resources to oversee them, he's needlessly holding thousands of people behind bars?

Credit: Mikey Angels / Flickr

Credit: Mikey Angels / Flickr

The ACLU says many of the inmates being kept on ICE holds aren't even illegal immigrants: Some have green cards and are even legal residents. Some have had their federal cases cleared, the ACLU told us.

So it then presents a Catch 22, says the organization in a statement:

LASD forced many of these individuals to languish in jail not just on the ICE hold, but prior to trial, because they refused to allow them to post bail due to the presence of an ICE hold. Although pretrial detainees are presumed to be innocent and are eligible for bail, LASD's refusal to allow them to post bail has meant they must choose between sitting in jail while they fight their criminal case or accept a plea they would not otherwise accept just to secure their release from custody.

The civil liberties group says 20,000 people were kept behind bars on such holds — “without legal authority” — in 2011 alone.

[Added at 2:05 p.m.]: We just talked to ACLU staff attorney Jennie Pasquarella, who's on the case.

She says that, while the holds are voluntary, ICE wants to keep these folks behind bars until it has time to deal with them. And she thinks the sheriff's department bows down to this because the feds give it “millions of dollars” to do so.

However, Pasquarella thinks its not worth the “dollars and cents.”

She says most of these folks are behind bars for minor allegations, misdemeanors even, and that people with much scarier charges and records of serious crime are let out as a result of overcrowding and state prison realignment while immigration holds keep the more innocent behind bars.

She says many of these inmates aren't allowed to post bail, regardless of how light the allegations are, because of the ICE holds and have to stay behind bars for sometimes months or else plead guilty, pay up and get out.

The holds, Pasquarella says, are based on preliminary information that someone might be “deportable,” but ICE doesn't fully investigate until the person is in their own custody, which could take weeks and even months.

Specific inmates are named in the suit but it's also class-action, covering folks held beyond their release dates because of ICE requests over the last two years.

The federal court filing made today will ask for a yet-to-be-determined amount of cash, Pasquarella says. And it seeks an injunction that would stop the sheriff's department from doing this.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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