SANTA ANA - The number of jail beds in Riverside County east of Los Angeles was finally catching up with the region's rapid growth when state lawmakers passed sweeping legislation that assigned thousands of inmates who would have gone to prison to their local lockups instead.
Almost overnight, the county of more than 2.2 million people was booking 200 new inmates a month and began early releases for hundreds of other, less-serious offenders to make room. In the past five months, the county has released 1,500 offenders early in a constant churn that forces jail deputies to decide which of their wards are the "best of the worst," Sheriff Stan Sniff said.
"Ultimately, it becomes a crap shoot because dealing with these people, the crystal ball only goes so far," he said.
Like Sniff, many sheriffs throughout the state are releasing local inmates early to make room for offenders who previously would have gone to prison. For more than half of California's 58 counties, the situation is compounded by prior court- ordered caps on their jail populations.
The law took effect on Oct. 1 and is part of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to restructure state government and push more services to the county level. Opponents had cited the dangers of early releases in arguing against the shift, but after seven months, it's unclear whether the law is leading to a spike in violent crime.
There have been a few instances of released inmates committing serious new offenses and anecdotal reports of rising property crimes in some areas, but it's too soon to tell if those cases equate to a trend, said Ryan Sherman, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing state prison guards.
Law enforcement officials say it will take at least a year before any spike in crime rates can be linked definitively to the realignment.
State data on county-by-county jail populations show a slight increase in overall jail populations statewide - from 71,293 to 72,132 - during the fourth quarter of 2011, which coincides with the first three months of the law's implementation. The number of maximum-security inmates in county jails also rose during that period, from 22,478 to 23,339, according to the latest numbers available from the state's Corrections Standards Authority.
But the figures also show that early releases from county jails were down from 11,233 to 10,411 in the fourth quarter of last year and that the number of offenders released before trial stayed flat. Those numbers would seem to contradict local accounts of jail crowding that require early releases in many counties. The specific numbers for early and pre-trial releases, however, only cover the first six weeks after the law took effect last Oct. 1, and many sheriffs say they didn't start feeling the law's the full impact until January or later.
Orange County, for example, has seen its jail population rise 10 percent but has not struggled as much to accommodate the roughly 450 inmates it receives who previously would have gone to state prison, Assistant Sheriff Mike James said.
The county reopened its women's jail to make room and has doubled the number of people in its work-release program, he said. Even so, officials are starting to look at doing pre-trial releases if the offender is fitted with a GPS device, James said.
"We've had the bed space, and we've been very lucky," he said.
Concerns about public safety were at the forefront when lawmakers passed the legislation to satisfy a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce severe overcrowding in the state's 33 prisons and as a way to reduce state costs, which have soared over the past decade.
The law requires non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent offenders sentenced since October to serve their time in county jails instead of state prison.
Those who were sentenced before the law took effect will complete their time in prison, but the law transfers the responsibility for monitoring freed inmates who fall in those categories from the state to county probation officials. Offenders of all types who violate their parole are now sent to county jail instead of prison.
It has triggered sweeping changes in the way local law enforcement does business. Probation officers were initially swamped with more state parolees - and more violent parolees - than they expected, and sheriffs departments scrambled to establish alternative custody programs.
Among the challenges is accommodating long sentences that must be served in county jails that were not intended for stays of more than one year.
A man with multiple prior drug convictions was sentenced to 23 years in Santa Barbara County, and two defendants in Sacramento County were sentenced recently to 18 years.
"They're felons, but they're serving time in county jail. The sheriff has to say, 'Who do I let out? Who can I let out?"' said Scott Thorpe, chief executive officer for the California District Attorneys Association. "Even with credits, they'll spend way, way more time than jails have previously had to deal with."
Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Redlands, introduced a bill that would have required any sentence of three years or more to be served in prison, but it died. Another bill, by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would make simple drug possession a misdemeanor, thereby lowering incarceration rates. A third bill, by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, encourages counties to use risk-assessment tools to release more offenders on their own recognizance before trial.
The key is to get sheriffs to address overcrowding with a different mind-set, said Allen Hopper, an ACLU attorney who authored a report on the realignment law.
"They say, 'We've got too many people in our jails. What are we supposed to do?' Well, what you're supposed to do is take a look at the people who are in your jails ... and really look at alternatives to incarceration," he said.
Many local jails are already adjusting, said Curtis Hill, a legislative representative for the California State Sheriff's Association.
"You see counties that are realizing under realignment that if you don't embrace what the governor's policy is - and that is to provide for alternative forms of custody for this population - then you're going to be out of money and your jail is going to be jampacked," he said. "It's a new normal."
Butte County, in far Northern California, is among those dealing with a court-ordered population cap and an influx of inmates resulting from the state's new law.
Deputies release four or five inmates a day to an alternative custody program or with GPS-monitoring to make room for about 300 inmates who previously would have done their time in prison. A pre-trial release program is in the planning stages, county Sheriff Jerry W. Smith said.
Smith is trying to rent bed space from two neighboring counties that still have capacity and is weighing whether to keep a $3.5 million contract he has with the federal government to house federal prisoners. The money is good, he said, but the federal prisoners take up valuable bed space.
Meeting the county's jail population cap and protecting public safety is a balancing act that worries Smith constantly.
"If I release somebody and they go out and kill their mother and put her in a septic tank, everyone's going to know my name," he said. "I'll bet you a biscuit that before this is through, something like that's going to happen."
In San Bernardino County, the jail has been forced to release an average of 290 offenders a day to make room for new bookings, a 30 percent increase in the early releases it already was doing to comply with its own jail population cap. The county also has added more than 4,000 inmates to its work-release and electronic-monitoring programs to free up bed space, said Deputy Chief Lance Clark.