About 300 people have left Stanislaus County jails and alternative work programs in the past few weeks — to the ire of area law enforcement and politicians — after legislation kicked in to slash prison and county jail populations across the state.
The county released 66 jail inmates and 111 work program participants the week of Jan. 25, when the bill went into effect. Jail officials continue to let inmates go as they accrue credits for good behavior under a new formula that speeds their release.
The law is intended to save money in a recession, but county leaders say the financial benefits have been "negligible."
That's because the county's jails are routinely overcrowded. Letting someone out early essentially just clears a bed for the next inmate.
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"It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Supervisor Bill O'Brien said Friday. "People are in there for a reason ... and they need to do their time. I don't know it will save us a lot of money, yet we're forced to put these people back on the streets."
Among those eligible for early release are nonviolent offenders, such as those convicted of property crimes, but not sex offenders, said sheriff's Capt. Bill Duncan, who oversees the county's jails.
But Duncan worries inmates are likely to re-offend and will come right back through the jailhouse doors: "Its kind of a vicious cycle."
Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers said his office is working to absorb the backlog of released inmates who are now under the watch of his officers. He said it will take weeks or even months to make contact with the newly released inmates.
"Would I be shocked to see some of these offenders arrested before we can even process them? No that wouldn't surprise me," Powers said.
Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the bill last fall as part of a package to close the state's budget deficit and respond to court rulings that aimed to ease prison overcrowding. Some 6,500 state inmates are due to be released, saving the state a projected $500 million.
Schwarzenegger contends the law makes the state safer, because it directs more supervision time to the truly dangerous, a prison agency spokesman said.
The state will stop monitoring low-level offenders after their release and make it unlikely they'll return to prison on a technicality. The thinking follows that more inmates will complete rehabilitation programs to smooth their transition back into society -- even if it comes ear- lier than their original sentences mandated.
"It allows our agents to focus on the highest-risk parolees, which increases public safety," said the state Corrections Department's Oscar Hidalgo. "We're asking inmates to complete programs that have proven helpful to success on the outside, such as getting a GED or learning a trade."
The greatest outcry over the plan has been in Sacramento County. About 200 inmates were released there, including a man accused of assaulting a woman hours after getting out.
A week ago, a Sacramento County judge halted that county's early releases, saying the legislation applies only to state prisons and not to county jails. Judge Loren E. McMaster called the releases a "formula for disaster."
But officials in many counties, including Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin and Tuolumne, believe the law does apply to local inmates.
San Joaquin County released 40 people from custody. Unlike Stanislaus County, San Joaquin does not award inmates early release credits retroactively, to the start of an inmate's incarceration. Merced has not released any inmates because its sheriff's department also applied the new fast-track credits beginning Jan. 25, said spokesman Tom MacKenzie.
Nine inmates have left Tuolumne County jails under the law, and 80 more have received extra time credits, said sheriff's spokesman Jeff Wilson.
Sonora Police Chief Mark Stinson offered a harsh assessment of the governor's plan. He sent out a news release claiming the program was already "failing," pointing to a Sonora man who was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence just two days after leaving the oversight of a state parole officer.
"There's nobody out there watching these individuals and holding them accountable," Stinson said. "It's pretty sad ... risking public safety to save money."
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.