Judge orders Sacramento County to stop early jail releases

Posted on February 10, 2010. Filed under: Courts, Parole, The Law |

Sacramento Bee

by Andy Furillo

Published Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

Saying it was a “formula for disaster,” a Sacramento judge today blocked the Sheriff’s Department from granting any more early releases to inmates it is holding in the county’s jail facilities.

Sheriff’s officials began the releases last week in response to a bill passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that will have the effect of reducing the state prison population by about 6,300 inmates, mostly through parole changes.

In his ruling today, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren E. McMaster granted a temporary restraining order that was requested by the deputy sheriff’s union. McMaster said in his two-page written ruling that the new state law only applies to state prisoners, not county jail inmates. The judge set a March 3 hearing date for the union’s request for a preliminary injunction.

The union’s lawyer, David P. Mastagni, argued in a hearing today that the release of the estimated 200 inmates since Jan. 25 before their previously-set release dates, combined with the layoffs of 122 sheriff’s deputies since August, posed a public safety problem for the county.

McMaster agreed.

“Releasing inmates early by the application of a law intended only for those in the state prison population at the same time that deputies in the field are being substantially reduced is a formula for disaster,” McMaster wrote.

The judge also agreed with Mastagni’s argument that the early releases violated the 2008 Victim’s Bill of Rights passed by the state’s voters. The so-called “Marsy’s Law” requires victims to be notified if and when the offenders convicted for the crimes against them are released early.

Mastagni, in his arguments in court today, argued that the “irreparable harm” of the early release program was evident last week when an inmate who got out of jail 16 days early was arrested for the attempted rape of a woman at the Loaves and Fishes complex for the homeless north of downtown.

“There’s nothing hypothetical about it,” Mastagni said.

Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness said he was “generally pleased” with the decision.

“My goal was not different from that of the Deputy Sheriffs Association,” McGinness said in a telephone interview today. “I did not want these people released.”

McGinness said he opened the jail gates to the inmates before their time was up based on “the opinions of counsel” that the new law applied to county inmates as well as state prisoners.

At today’s hearing, Deputy County Counsel James R. Wood argued that the deputies’ union did not have standing to bring the case that named the county and the state corrections department as defendants. Wood noted in his verbal arguments that the alleged attack at Loaves and Fishes occurred in city territory and not in the sheriff’s patrol jurisdiction.

Wood said that no deputies have suffered any injuries as a result of the releases, to which McMaster replied from the bench, “We have to wait ’til somebody gets hurt?”

The county lawyer also said there has been no evidence of increased criminal activity as a result of the early releases. He argued that the legislative intent of last year’s bill was for it to apply to county inmates as well as state prisoners.

Wood said the union incorrectly characterized the inmates who are being released as dangerous.

“When the plaintiff comes in and says we have these dangerous criminals being released, they want to classify all inmates as dangerous,” Wood said.

Last year’s bill said that only inmates not characterized as “serious” or “violent,” according to classifications outlined in the state’s “three-strikes” law, or as sex offenders, are eligible for the early releases.

In his ruling, McMaster said the early releases “put the deputies in the field more at risk than they would be” without them

McMaster said he believes the union is likely to prevail on the merits of the suit and that the “balance of hardship” if the releases remain in effect could hurt the general public.

“Public safety is compromised by releasing county jail inmates into (the) community when they have not completed their sentence,” McMaster wrote.

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