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City jails in Orange County soon set up similar programs.

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But allowing some defendants to avoid the region’s notoriously dangerous county jails has long rankled some in law enforcement who believe it runs counter to the spirit of equal justice.

The region’s pay-to-stay jails took in nearly $7 million from the programs from 2011 through 2015, according to revenue figures provided by the cities.

After he pleaded no contest to statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl who attended his South L. church in 2011, Leonel Pelayo, then 45, compiled a list of every pay-to-stay jail he could find.

“County jail, you’re verbally abused, physically abused by everybody,” said Pelayo, who was a church leader.

Wurtzel later claimed the act was consensual, but in 2011 he pleaded no contest to sexual battery and was sentenced to a year in jail.

After their second date, he walked Markin to her door, followed her inside and, she said, forced her to perform oral sex.

Markin learned about Wurtzel’s upgraded jail stay only recently, from a reporter. But what started out as an antidote to overcrowding has evolved into a two-tiered justice system that allows people convicted of serious crimes to buy their way into safer and more comfortable jail stays.

An analysis by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times of the more than 3,500 people who served time in Southern California’s pay-to-stay programs from 2011 through 2015 found more than 160 participants who had been convicted of serious crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography.

Like Wurtzel, those defendants were convicted of felonies, which can end in a state prison sentence.

But judges have the discretion to order some felony offenders to serve time in county jails.

In those cases, judges can also allow a defendant to serve the time in a city jail.

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