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Calif. law to free inmates early draws protests

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A law intended to reduce inmate overcrowding by allowing early releases at state prisons and county jails is sowing confusion throughout California a month after it took effect.

Lawmakers of both parties have called for repealing and modifying parts of the law, a county deputies' union has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to block it and a loophole was exposed after an inmate with a violent past was arrested for attempted rape just hours after his release.

Two Republican lawmakers who had opposed the law — Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach and Assemblyman Curt Hagman of Chino Hills — issued statements this week calling for a halt in the early releases from county jails.

"That is the wrong way to solve our budget problems — by putting public safety at risk by releasing these prisoners," Harman, who is running for attorney general, said in an interview.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill last fall as part of the legislative package to close the state's budget deficit. Some 6,500 state inmates are due to be released early this year under the law, saving the state budget a projected $500 million.

The law expands early release credits for state prison inmates who complete educational and vocational programs, shaving months off their sentences. It also lets the state stop monitoring low-level offenders after they leave prison, making it unlikely they will be returned if they violate the terms of their probation.

At the county level, differing interpretations have led to a patchwork approach since the law took effect Jan. 25.

At least 18 of California's 58 counties are applying the law retroactively, giving their county jail inmates additional credits for the time they already spent in jail before the law took effect. That led to a surge of releases over the last two weeks.

At least 16 counties decided the earlier releases apply only to credits earned for time served after the law took effect, according to the California State Sheriffs' Association. Four other counties aren't sure yet how they will implement the law, while 20 counties had not responded as of Friday.

"The counties are all over the map on this," said Scott Thorpe, chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association.

No state prison inmates have been released under the law yet because the language is more specific for state prisoners: They will get credit only for completing rehabilitation programs started after the law took effect.

Whether it applies to inmates in state prisons or county jails, the law was not intended to help those convicted of violent or sexual crimes get out early.

A release this week from the Sacramento County Jail exposed an apparent loophole in that provision when an inmate who was let out early under the new law was arrested just hours later on suspicion of attempting to rape a counselor. Although he had been in jail for a probation violation, the inmate's underlying crime was a violent one — assault with a deadly weapon.

Had the law not been in effect, he would have had to wait an additional 16 days before he was eligible for release.

The alleged assault prompted several lawmakers to call for an immediate halt to the law's implementation at the county level.

"We're no longer speculating. An inmate was improperly released and almost raped a woman," said Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont. "It's obvious we're creating a very dangerous situation."

Torrico, who is running for attorney general and helped write the law, said he will introduce a bill next week seeking to remove counties from the law's early release provisions.

He joined a lawsuit filed Friday by the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association, saying in a sworn declaration that the law was intended to apply only to inmates in state prisons, not county jails.

The association sued Sacramento County and the state corrections department, seeking an injunction preventing more early releases. The lawsuit argues that the law should not be applied retroactively to time inmates have already served and should not affect county jail inmates at all.

Two Democratic Assembly members, Ted Lieu of Torrance and Alyson Huber of Lodi, have introduced a bill requiring local law enforcement agencies to be notified before any state inmates are freed without parole supervision.

State corrections officials and law enforcement experts have said the law could improve public safety by easing overcrowding in state prisons, encouraging inmates to complete rehabilitation programs and reducing caseloads for parole officers so they can concentrate on violent offenders.

Thorpe, of the district attorneys association, said the early release program simply accelerates what is happening already.

"These guys get dumped on the streets every single day," Thorpe said.

Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Stanislaus and Tulare counties each released at least 150 inmates within a matter of days after the law took effect. Officials there believed they should count inmates' credits for time already served.

Other counties — including Los Angeles, the state's most populous — decided the law should not be applied retroactively, thus avoiding a mass release.

The law is not clear on when the early release credits should be applied. The state attorney general, state corrections officials and associations representing sheriffs and prosecutors say they cannot provide an answer. That left each sheriff to decide individually, after consulting with local prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and lawyers.

"It's just a big gray area. My understanding is about half the sheriffs did it one way and half the sheriffs did it the other," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. "It cries out for state interpretation — a little leadership up there."

Gore said one reason his county opted to grant the credits retroactively was to avoid potential challenges by inmates.