Over 1,500 California jail inmates released in recent weeks; judge blocks Sacramento County program

By Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton (LA Times)
February 10, 2010 | 3:46 pm

More than 1,500 inmates have been released from county jails around California in response to legislation designed to cut the state prison population, prompting an outcry from some law enforcement officials.

More than 300 inmates have been released from Orange County Jail in the last few weeks and about 200 have been freed in Sacramento County, including a man who allegedly assaulted a woman hours after getting early release.

On Wednesday a judge in Sacramento ordered a temporary halt in that county’s early releases, saying the legislation applies only to state prisons and not to county jails. The judge sided with the deputy sheriff’s union, which filed suit against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to block the releases.

Officials for Sacramento, Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura, Riverside and other counties have said their legal counsels advised them that the law did apply to county jails, and they created release plans when the law took effect in January.

The legislation, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, was designed to reduce the state prison population in the wake of the state’s financial crisis and court rulings about prison overcrowding.

[Updated at 5:23 p.m.: Officials have said the law would reduce the state prison population by 6,500 low-level offenders over the next year. The state prison system has not yet released prisoners early under the terms of the law.

The law changes the formula by which prisoners receive time off for good behavior, speeding their release. The state legislative counsel’s summary of the law said it would “revise the time credits for certain prisoners confined or committed to a county jail or other specified facilities.”

David Tennessan, chief deputy of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, said his agency has had no choice but to release 200 inmates in recent weeks. But officials have not done so happily. The law “was misguided,” he said, adding that he expects the county to ultimately release at least 600 inmates.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has not released any inmates early under the new law. The county requires that male inmates serve 80% of their sentences, and officials said they won’t reduce that requirement because of the new law.

“We have no plans to release anyone from county jail based on what the state is doing,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “We don’t think it applies to us.”

In San Bernardino County, 648 inmates have been released so far, according to the Sheriff’s Department. In Riverside County, more than 170 inmates have been released.

A previous version of this post said nearly 1,000 inmates had been released from county jails.]

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