Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In California, a lot of people are angry about the early release of nonviolent prisoners. Hundreds have been set free over the past couple of weeks, and it may have been a mistake. Critics say the problem is a new state law that's so confusing, nobody understands it. Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES: The law was supposed to be about the state's overcrowded prisons, which face a federal court order to reduce the inmate population. But across California, many county sheriffs believed the statute also applied to them. So, they opened their jails and started releasing hundreds of non-violent inmates. Within a week, there was this...

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: We start today with breaking news. An inmate who was part of Sacramento County's early release program was arrested for attempted rape less than 24 hours later.

GONZALES: That's how Sacramento TV station KCRA reported on Kevin Peterson, a 22-year-old inmate, who was halfway through a four-month sentence on a probation violation. Peterson wasn't even out a full day when he got busted for the attempted rape.

Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness took the heat but blamed it on the new statute.

Captain JOHN MCGINNESS (Sheriff, Sacramento County): There's no reason for any clear thinking person to be believe that this change in the law, resulting in a lot releases from correctional facilities throughout the state, would not have an adverse impact of public safety. And I think this illustrates exactly that point.

GONZALES: In Kevin Peterson's case, the new law meant he could get out of jail 16 days early. The question is: Should it apply to any county jail inmate? That's not clear, says San Francisco County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, Eileen Hirst.

Ms. EILEEN HIRST (Spokeswoman, San Francisco County's Sheriff's Department): The law is not specific about its application.

GONZALES: She says some counties are applying the law only to inmates sentenced after January 25th. Others, like Sacramento County, have been giving inmates credits earned for good behavior before the law went into effect, that's how Kevin Peterson got free. And that never should have happened says California Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico.

Representative ALBERTO TORRICO (Democrat, Fremont, California State Assembly Majority Leader): 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.

GONZALES: Torrico says the new law was never intended to be applied to county jail inmates - that's why he joined a lawsuit filed by the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff's Association, seeking an injunction. Yesterday, a local judge agreed and ordered the county to stop releasing jail inmates, pending another hearing.

The state prison system is gearing up to implement the new law, but it hasn't released any prisoners yet, says Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state corrections system.

Ms. TERRY THORNTON (Spokeswoman, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): The law was implemented on January 25th. Inmates have to successfully complete a rehabilitation program to earn those enhanced credits. Not enough time has gone by for that to happen.

GONZALES: However, within a year, California will reduce its prison population by about 6,500 inmates. Only non-violent offenders who meet criteria for good behavior will be eligible, and state officials hope a go-slow approach will help avoid controversy like the one seen this week.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

(Soundbite of song, "Peter Gunn Theme")

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.