Sheriff releases inmates to avoid overcrowding

Posted on January 30, 2012. Filed under: Crime, Public Safety Realignment |

By Dana Littlefield

San Diego Union Tribune

Thursday, January 26, 2012

SAN DIEGO — A recent surge in the population at county jails has prompted Sheriff Bill Gore to start shaving up to 10 percent off jail terms for some inmates to avoid overcrowding.

The number of men held in custody this month in San Diego County swelled to 96 percent of capacity. Most of the increase can be traced to a law Gov. Jerry Brown sought and the Legislature approved last year that allows some lower-level criminals to be sentenced to local jail instead of state prison.

Around Jan. 19, Gore authorized the release of about 260 inmates, most of whom were serving misdemeanor sentences or were nonviolent felons ordered to serve jail time as a condition of probation. The average number being released now is about 35 to 40 a day, he said.

“Most of them would have been released within a couple weeks,” Gore said Thursday. “We had the immediate need to create bed space.”

He said none of the inmates released early had been sentenced under the state law that took effect Oct. 1.

“This is not new,” Gore said of the 10 percent early-release credits, which grew out of a pair of lawsuits filed in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at improving conditions for San Diego County inmates.

He and previous sheriffs used that discretion for more than 20 years until early 2010, when the number of jail bookings started coming down, he said.

Since Brown proposed in April shifting responsibility for some state inmates to county jails, local officials have voiced concern about potential overcrowding and other possible dangers associated with the plan known as “realignment.”

It has been described by law enforcement officials as the biggest change to criminal justice in California in decades. It shifted responsibility for certain nonviolent and nonserious offenders from the state to the counties to help close a massive budget gap and ease prison overcrowding.

About 500 felony crimes have been identified for which offenders can be sentenced to county jail instead of prison. They include vehicular manslaughter, grand theft and sale of illegal drugs. Sex offenders who would have gone to state prison before realignment will continue to do so.

County Supervisor Greg Cox was one of the local officials who expressed trepidation about realignment when the Board of Supervisors approved the local implementation plan in September.

“I just have this sinking feeling that somewhere down the line somebody is going to be out that shouldn’t be out and do something that they shouldn’t do,” Cox said at the time.

In an email Thursday to U-T San Diego, he said, “I have full faith in Sheriff Gore and how he operates our County jails and trust his judgment on early release. Ultimately, the reason for early release is due to the state’s poor management of its budget and prison system, which has put more inmates into County jails.”

San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne said Thursday he did not expect the early releases to significantly affect crime in the city, which continues to see historic lows in overall crime rates.

“I don’t think it will cause problems,” he said, although he acknowledged some offenders may “slip through the cracks.”

Judge David Danielsen, assistant presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court, said he was not surprised to learn of the recent releases because it was inevitable overcrowding would occur under the state law.

But, Danielsen said, “It’s always best if the court’s orders for custody are fully honored.”

As of last week, San Diego County’s inmate population had grown to about 5,200. Total capacity, which is set by the courts, is capped at 5,600 — 4,600 men and 1,000 women.

“That’s why we felt we had to implement some of these early releases,” Gore said.

Only men have been released so far because that’s where the crowding is. The female inmate population is around 70 percent of capacity.

Because of realignment, the jails are housing hundreds of inmates who previously would have been sent to prison as well as parolees who violated the terms of their parole. Gore said parole violators are spending an average of 60 days in local custody, when the previous estimate was around 30 days.

The situation wasn’t helped by a succession of holiday weekends, when arrests for DUIs and other crimes are often higher and suspects have to wait an extra day to have their bail set by a judge.

It remains unclear how long the sheriff will continue to impose the 10 percent sentence reductions.

“If our population stabilizes, we’ll stop that,” Gore said.

Staff writer Kristina Davis contributed to this report.


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