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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...
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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.
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