Judge rules that California jail inmates were released by mistake

A superior court judge ruled Wednesday that a new law, designed to reduce overcrowding at state prisons, was never intended to apply to county jails. More than 1,000 inmates were let go early before the ruling was handed down.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
Prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California are seen housed in the dayroom of the prison due to overcrowding in the California prison system in this September 14, 2009 file photo.

More than 1,000 California county jail inmates were freed over the past few weeks due to an apparent misreading of a new state law intended to reduce state prison overcrowding.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster halted the releases Wednesday. Calling them “a formula for disaster,” Judge McMaster ruled that an amended statute, which increases “good time” credits for inmates and allows many to reduce their sentences, was never intended to apply to county jails.

One inmate released early from a Sacramento jail was arrested on attempted rape charges less than a day after being freed, according to the Sacramento Bee. A victims' rights advocate told the paper: "Our greatest fear has occurred almost immediately after the early release of these inmates."

When the law took effect Jan. 25, many California sheriff’s departments applied it retroactively to their inmates. Three hundred were freed early in Orange County, and about 200 were released ahead of time in Sacramento. Others, according to the Los Angeles Times, were let go early in Riverside, Ventura, and San Bernardino.

California Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, who helped draft the new legislation, says he was “shocked” to hear that the law was being used by sheriffs to reduce their inmate populations. He filed suit, along with the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, to stop the releases.

Assembly member Torrico says the change was made to address demands by a federal judicial panel that has ordered California to reduce its prison population, which is about double its intended capacity. The change in credits for good behavior is estimated to lower the state prison inmate population by about 6,500 annually.

Currently, the state houses about 155,000 inmates in 33 prisons (another 12,000 or so are held in out-of-state facilities). The judicial panel ruled that California should reduce its prison population by roughly 40,000 to provide a constitutional level of care for prisoners.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the increase in good time credits could cut a prisoner’s sentence by up to six weeks per year. The credits could be earned for completing educational classes and vocational training, according to CDCR.

While the intent of the law was to reduce state prison populations, it does allow inmates to earn credit for the time served in county jails while waiting to be transfered to state correctional facilities.

Torrico says the bill was applied to county jails, which face their own overcrowding and budget problems, through “creative lawyering at county counsel offices.”

But some county attorneys said they were following what they thought was the intent of the law.

“I don’t understand how the amended section cannot apply to county jail inmates,” Dennis Christy, San Bernardino County's assistant district attorney, told the LA Times. "The section the new law amended deals with county inmates.”

Sheriff Clay Parker of Tehama County, who serves as president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, says it was a legal gray area.

“The reason this happened in the first place was that it was a poorly written piece of legislation,” he says.

Torrico now says that he will introduce an emergency piece of legislation intended to clarify the language of the law.

So, what will happen to all the inmates freed before the releases were halted Wednesday?

“I think they are going to have to go and pick them up,” says Torrico. “That’s what they would do if they were smart and cared about public safety.”

But Sherriff Parker says that’s unlikely.

“I’m guessing it’s going to be their lucky break,” he says. He doubts that counties would now say, “Oops, we made a mistake. Now you’re coming back.”

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