Courts & Crime

Sacramento County inmates go home early

Last year's emergency bill to cut California's prison and jail populations has kicked into effect, with hundreds of locally incarcerated inmates walking free this week up to two months earlier than they had expected.

Sacramento authorities said they let about 200 lower-level offenders out of jail Tuesday, compared to an average daily release count of somewhere between 100 and 150.The releases apply to offenders such as drug dealers, car thieves, drunken drivers, spousal abusers and the like. Sex criminals and serious and violent offenders have specifically been exempted.

Sheriff John McGinness said he expected 250 more of his county jail inmates to take advantage this week of the added good-time credits under last year's prison bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

McGinness said the number of average daily releases probably will flatten out over the next few weeks, but that "we'd be foolish not to believe" that this week's spike won't have an impact on public safety.

"I think that potential is very much there that you're going to have a bunch of people who were incarcerated and all of a sudden they're out at one time," McGinness said. "The potential for them to fall into old bad behavior and act out in a negative way is a reality."

The Legislature passed Senate Bill x3 18 last September as an emergency measure to deal with the state's prison population crisis. The bill is expected to reduce the state inmate population by an estimated 6,300 inmates over the years, mostly as a result of parole changes.

A lesser known aspect of the bill, however, increased good-time credits for already-sentenced county jail inmates. They had been getting one-third of their time shaved off their terms. The bill increased the good behavior credit to 50 percent of their terms.

The change means that the most serious county jail inmates will be getting out in six months instead of eight – if they behave behind bars.

In downtown Sacramento, a dozen inmates whooped it up in the street Tuesday night when they got off the bus from the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center ahead of time.

"Guess where I am?" former inmate Scott Bias, 25, told a friend on a borrowed cell phone. "Downtown Sacramento. I got released today."

Bias said three months were taken off his term for a felony evasion conviction.

"There's a reason I'm out early, and I'm going to heed that reason," said Bias, as he pulled a New Testament from his pocket. "This is the most important thing."

This week's extra inmate releases surprised some members of the local criminal justice community, and led other observers to fear a potential public safety threat.

"I was not aware that the legislation that applies to the state prisons also applies to individual counties," said Kevin Mickelson, president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs' Association. "I don't think that was brought to anyone's attention. I'm perplexed by the fact we're talking about it almost after the fact."

Christine Ward, director of the Criminal Victim Action Alliance in Sacramento, took issue with the "non-violent" description of the offenders who are getting time shaved.

"There's no telling who's coming out into our communities at this point," she said.

Nick Warner of the California State Sheriffs' Association said that as of Monday, 21 of the state's 58 counties had begun granting the extended time credits and that an estimated 1,100 inmates had been released early. He said those figures do not include tallies from some larger counties such as Los Angeles and San Bernardino.

"It's really a difficult time in county corrections and state corrections and to be a law enforcement leader," Warner said. He called this week's inmate releases "too much, too fast, too extreme."

Schwarzenegger and the federal courts, meanwhile, are haggling over competing plans to cut the state prison population by thousands more inmates. The governor also has sought to cut prison spending until it shrinks to higher education levels.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.