SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Inmates convicted of violent crimes are among those being freed early from California jails to save money, despite lawmakers' promises that they would exclude most dangerous prisoners and sex offenders.
An Associated Press review of inmate data shows that some of the freed criminals were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, battery, domestic violence, and attacks on children and the elderly.
The early release program specifically forbids authorities from freeing prisoners convicted of about 150 crimes such as rape and murder. But any offense that is not specifically listed qualifies for release, and individual counties can then decide who gets out.
"This bill not only theoretically will result in a public safety catastrophe, it already has," said Democratic Assemblyman Ted Lieu, an outspoken opponent of the system who is running for attorney general. He wants to expand the list of excluded crimes.
The release of violent offenders does not technically violate the law, but it runs counter to lawmakers' promises about the plan when it was adopted.
Legislators approved the early release program last year as a way to cut costs and reduce crowding in state prisons and county jails.
At the time, both the Democratic Assembly Speaker, Karen Bass, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger described the measure as a reform that would protect public safety while saving as much as $1 billion. Both denied that it even contained early release provisions.
But when the law took effect in January, the release of hundreds of inmates from local jails drew a swift backlash, especially after an inmate freed under the law was arrested within a day on suspicion of attempting to rape a female counselor.
The Sacramento County inmate had been jailed for a probation violation, but his underlying offense was assault with a deadly weapon.
During the first few weeks of the early release program, more than 1,800 jail inmates were released statewide before they had served their full sentences, according to the California State Sheriffs' Association.
Hundreds more have been freed since then, although the association has stopped keeping track.
California is not the only state to seek savings in early releases. New or expanded release programs began last year in a dozen other states: Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Gov. Pat Quinn suspended Illinois' program in December after the AP found hundreds of inmates were being released too early. About 200 of the paroled inmates were returned to prison within the first four months of the program because of violations.
In California, the AP used public-records requests to obtain lists of inmates who had been freed from several of the state's most populous counties. The lists were then cross-referenced with inmates' offenses.
Three of those counties – Alameda, Orange and San Bernardino – account for roughly 15 percent of the state prison population. The lists covered the first 2 1/2 weeks of the early release program, which started Jan. 25.
In Orange County, about 8 percent of the 278 inmates released early had been serving time for crimes that included assault, battery, corporal injury to a spouse, inflicting injury on a child, cruelty to a child, domestic violence, resisting arrest and possession of a switchblade.
In Alameda County, 15 percent of the 87 inmates released early had been sentenced for those crimes and others, including carrying concealed or loaded guns, attempting to take a gun from a police officer and displaying a gun in a threatening manner.
San Bernardino County provided jail records for 642 inmates released under the new law. The AP used booking numbers to link a 10 percent sample to court records. Of that sample, 29 percent had been convicted of crimes considered violent or threatening, from domestic violence and weapons charges to stalking and injury to an elder.
Los Angeles County, which has the largest population of jail inmates, has not granted any early releases under the law, although it has recently begun freeing inmates because it is running out of space.
At state prisons, corrections officials expect to save $500 million by granting early release to about 6,500 inmates this year. Most of those releases will not begin until later this year.
The law did not provide direction to county jails about how to evaluate inmates who qualify for early release.
"Some are no-brainers," said Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. J.D. Nelson. With others, "It's a slippery slope. Sometimes you have an attempted rape, but it's pleaded down to a misdemeanor. So now you're going to let that guy out early?"
Lieu wants to amend the law to exclude many of the crimes identified in the AP's research, as well as offenses such as solicitation to commit murder, various hate crimes and child abduction.
After the attempted rape arrest in Sacramento County, the Legislature also began considering amendments to the law, including a proposal to exclude county jails entirely from the early releases.
Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a Democrat from Fremont who helped write the law and also is running for attorney general, said it was never supposed to apply to counties. When it passed in September, he praised the legislation as "a smart reform package."