California state Senate repeals early release of county jail inmates

The California state Senate has voted unanimously to repeal legislation which allowed county jail inmates a chance at an earlier release than otherwise would be permitted.

The early-release law was instituted to address prison overcrowding at the state level. Under pressure from federal courts to reduce its prison population last year, California lawmakers allowed certain parole violators who would normally go to state prison, to be sent to local reentry programs and county jails. In turn, pressure was felt by counties to control a burgeoning inmate population.

This led to the amending of Section 4019 of the California Penal Code, permitting counties to increase early release of their inmates. The new provision allowed detainees to earn up to one-half of a reduction in their sentence through good behavior credits. The old system only allowed a one-third reduction in time served through these credits.

Lawmakers, citing public safety concerns, voted last Thursday to roll back the law after hearing reports of a Sacramento man who was arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman only hours after his early release from jail.

This event, which occurred in early February, spurred the deputies’ union to file a lawsuit against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to block any further early releases. Judge Loren E. McMaster issued a temporary injunction calling the program a “formula for disaster” and the releases a public safety risk. McMaster ruled that the law was not intended to apply to county detainees (though the penal code in question clearly deals with county inmates).

Another controversial component of last year’s law was the non-revocable parole status given to low-level offenders released early. This aspect of the law is not being revised.

The new measure, SB 1487, passed the Senate last Thursday with sponsorship from the California State Sheriffs’ Association and the Chief Probation Officers of California.  “Common sense needs to prevail,” said Senator Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) who opposed last year’s early release law, adding, “Never should we jeopardize our public safety requirements as legislators simply to balance our budget.”

The bill has gone to the Assembly for consideration where it is expected to pass. No alternative legislative action has been suggested to ease overcrowding in county jails, a problem which threatens to get worse with the passage of SB 1487.