Every day for the past year, Los Angeles County jail officials, who oversee the largest local jail system in the world, have been releasing prisoners before their sentence is up: as many as 600 in a day, and 47,000 in a year - nearly enough to fill Dodger Stadium.
While the offenders are nonviolent - drunken drivers, shoplifters, car thieves - the early releases have stirred controversy over whether the savings in tax dollars is worth what many see as a threat to public safety. As agencies report drops in violent crime, so-called "quality-of-life" crimes are soaring. To critics, the trend goes hand in hand with weakening deterrence.
The Los Angeles experience, while extreme, indicates a nationwide clash between tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s and budgetary realities of the new millennium:
• In Virginia, the legislature is wrestling with how to get more money for prisons, whose inmate population is currently spilling over into local jails that are 7,000 over capacity.
• Michigan legislators are looking at ways to change sentencing guidelines to avoid similar overcrowding, with 8 in 10 jails over capacity.
• In Missouri, the state supreme court recently ruled that a year-old law passed to ease prison overcrowding and save money by releasing some nonviolent felons applies retroactively as well as to incoming felons.
The collective result: far more burglars and convicted drunken drivers back on the streets than lawmakers bargained for.
In L.A. County, Sheriff Lee Baca says he had hoped the practice would be short term, but now sees no end in sight.
"For misdemeanor offenders our system has come to a grinding halt," says Sheriff Baca. "With thousands being freed after having paid less than 10 percent of their sentence, there simply is no sense of deterrence whatever. This is no way to run a criminal-justice system."
Sharp drops in tax income and resulting budget cuts have hit local law enforcement hard, straining existing personnel and facilities and jeopardizing hard-fought gains in crime from the previous decade. Though budgetary concerns have eased somewhat from recent years, most feel a full recovery to normal numbers of everything from street officers to handcuffs could take as long as 10 years.
But the most visible form of cutbacks in the nation's 3,200 jails are the hundreds of prisoners who are walking out on early release each day. Heading the list is Los Angeles County. Budget cuts in California over the past three years totaled close to $200 million, equal to about 12 percent of the sheriff's department budget this year.
"Los Angeles is the perfect example of the problem hitting every jurisdiction across this country," says Terry Jungel, immediate past president of the National Sheriffs' Executive Directors Committee and current executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association.
He says that "get tough on crime" policies and politicians in recent years have emphasized rhetoric over funding. The war on drugs, the deinstitutionalization of mental-health system, "three strikes you're out" laws have all increased the numbers in both jails and prisons.
"We have continued to pass new laws with new sentences but have not expanded the system to keep up with the public's dictate. You can't just continue to pour inmates in the front door without them flowing out the back," says Mr. Jungel.
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 650,000 are incarcerated in jails every day - 1 in 31 adults is in jail or prison, or on parole or probation - and 10 million are admitted each year. And overcrowding in state prisons backs up into local jails.
But the early release of nonviolent criminals concerns some analysts. LAPD police chief William Bratton, who has won national praise as head of three big-city police departments (Boston, New York, Los Angeles) has long pushed his "broken windows" strategy of law enforcement which emphasizes the punishment of the lesser crimes that lead to a life in greater crime.
"There has to be the certainty of some punishment in jail," says John Jones, president of the Virginia Sheriff's Association. "If we allow criminals a couple of passes on early crimes, it creates repeat offenders and those that try bigger crimes down the line."
Budget cutbacks not only threaten public safety but also the safety and morale of law enforcers and jail personnel who must make do with less - and then watch prisoners whom they have spent their careers locking up walk free early.
"We need to think about jailers and deputy sheriffs who are locked up for 8 hours a day guarding these prisoners in jammed cells without enough beds, showers and other amenities," says Mr. Jones. Virginia currently allots $24,000 annually for its deputy sheriffs. "That qualifies them for food stamps ... it's shameful," says Jones.
Jones, Jungel, Baca, and others are currently on the public stump for more funding from both state and federal governments. Baca is backing a half-cent sales tax in a November initiative that would raise $500 million to be split three ways between sheriffs, LAPD, and other California cities and towns. He also backing a controversial initiative that would expand gambling across the state while providing law enforcement added revenues.
One of their top priorities, they say, is building public awareness. Better understanding of the issues by the public could win more funding.
"The early releases are but a grain of sand in an enormous and still growing machine that have been fueled by politicians who are creating laws and policies that impact a system they know nothing about," says Steve Ingley, president of the American Jails Association. "Public ignorance, money, politicians, territory, fear, the six o'clock news, and Hollywood have contributed to a criminal-justice system that ... is undercapitalized, overutilized, understaffed and ill equipped."