A new state law that is designed to reduce California's exploding prison population is under fire for allowing the early release of some low-risk offenders. Hundreds of inmates from county jails have been set free in the past two weeks, but it's not at all clear they are eligible for release under the law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in late January.
The first sign of trouble came last week when the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department released 22-year-old Kevin Peterson, who has a record of violence, after he had served only half of a four-month sentence for violating his probation. Peterson was out for less than a day when he was arrested for attempted rape.
Sheriff John McGinness said he had no choice but to release Peterson 16 days early.
"There's no reason for any clear-thinking person to believe that this change in the law resulting in releases from correctional facilities around the state would not have an adverse impact on public safety, and I think this illustrates exactly that point," McGinness said.
The new law came in response to a federal court order to reduce California's prison population, which stands around 170,000 inmates. It changes parole rules and encourages inmates' rehabilitation by increasing the amount of credits they can earn for good behavior — credits that can lead to a quicker release. Only nonviolent, low-risk offenders would be eligible.
Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia said the new law is good public policy.
"You have to remember that this was passed by a very conservative legislature and a tough-on-crime governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger," Petersilia said. "And it was recommended by the three previous governors."
Some lawmakers say Peterson never should have been released because the new law wasn't intended to be applied to county jail inmates, just prisoners in the state system.
California State Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico said counties that released prisoners like Peterson have misinterpreted the law.
"I think they are dealing with some very serious budget constraints because of limited resources, and I just think they got desperate. And I think somebody got very creative and figured they could start releasing inmates from their county jail and they could blame it on Sacramento," Torrico said.
Torrico joined a lawsuit brought by the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff's Association seeking an injunction. On Wednesday, a local judge agreed and ordered the county to stop releasing jail inmates.
Meanwhile, the state prison system is gearing up to implement the new law, but it hasn't released any prisoners yet, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state corrections system.
"The law was implemented on January 25th. Inmates have to successfully complete a rehabilitation program to earn those enhanced credits. And not enough time has gone by for that to happen," Thornton said.
Within a year, California will reduce its prison population by about 6,500 inmates. But Petersilia said only nonviolent offenders who meet criteria for good behavior will be eligible. State officials hope a go-slow approach will help avoid controversy like the one seen this week.