Sheriff Baca, Interesting Figure

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

You know who has suddenly become one of the most interesting elected officials to follow in LA?

For me it's the sheriff, Lee Baca.

He commands a department of more than 18,000 deputies and other staff, with a budget north of $2 billion. That's a lot bigger than the LAPD -- the biggest sheriff's department in the country.

Baca's empire is not free of controversy, of course. There are allegations of mistreatment in Baca's jails, and other complaints about the behavior of his deputies.

But Baca's comments recently on the softer social side of policing are giving him a more well-rounded national profile than other sheriffs.

Several times now he's appeared before Congress and told his fellow Republicans they should tone down the anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In one verbal skirmish, he said it was un-American for a congressman to question his role in fundraisers for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The congressman had suggested the group backed terrorism and was duping Baca.

Baca rolled his eyes and told reporters he was surprised to find a member of Congress that "misinformed."

Baca, it turns out, is a former Marine whose response to the 9/11 attacks ten years ago was to read the Koran.

He reached out to local Islamic institutions to help him be alert to potential threats, and to make sure Muslims here didn't become victims too.

The sheriff's motives were partly professional – his investigators needed access and information.

And, as he told Robert Faturechi of the LA Times, the initiative also reflects his Los Angeles upbringing.

Baca spent his childhood riding the buses with an uncle whose learning disability made him a target. It gave him an understanding, he says, of people who are victimized for standing out.

Baca's overtures to minority groups have always helped give him a political base. Now they're making him a rock star to American Muslims, as the Times observed when Baca was mobbed by fans in New York.

Another media story – this one in Miller-McCune magazine by Vince Beiser – reveals Baca also thinks about the problem of jailing convicts without getting ready for when they get out.

Most county jail inmates will get out. And Baca wants to provide them with an education while they're living in his house.

Basic literacy is first. English skills, spelling, grammar.

But also math, history, religion – background for life that schools don't necessarily provide to those who end up in the jail system.

They need to be ready to work and be successful when they get out, or else their chances of coming right back are much higher.

Given the cost of that -- of crime and keeping people in jail for years and years – Baca says he's astounded that the public doesn't clamor for more education in prisons.

So he's doing it. And using technology like computers, DVDs and closed-circuit TV to reach those prisoners who want the help.

Those who don't, well, they can just waste their time as they serve their time.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.