The number of inmates released from early from Merced County’s two jails has increased each year since 2011 when the state implemented Assembly Bill 109, also known as the State Prison Realignment Act.
The average daily inmate population has increased in Merced County each year over the same time period, according to numbers obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.
Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Sullivan confirmed the population increases and subsequent early releases are a direct result of the impact of AB 109 on Merced County.
“It’s a complicated subject, but the bottom line is that to reduce state prison populations, they shifted the burden to the local jail and, in our case, it caused additional early releases from the jail,” Sullivan said.
Passed in October 2011, the realignment act transferred responsibility for nonviolent, nonsexual, less serious offenders from the state to the counties to reduce overpopulation in the state’s prisons, authorities have said.
In 2012, the county’s average daily population was around 866 inmates and 516 inmates were released from custody early to ease the burden. Those figures climbed in 2013 with an average daily population of 878 and 652 inmates were release early. The figures climbed again last year with an average daily population of 895 and a total of 725 early releases, the Sheriff’s Department reported.
Merced was one of 26 counties in California that reported increasing the number of early releases since realignment began, according to a report released this week from the California State Auditor’s Office.
Eight counties in the state reported decreasing the number of early-release inmates and 24 counties said they had no early releases, the report said.
The number of inmates being released by county jails increased by 37 percent statewide since the advent of realignment.
State prison officials have been adament that no inmates in state custody received early releases as a result of AB 109.
In its report Tuesday, the state auditor praised the Board of State and Community Corrections for doing a better job of collecting information about inmates that counties can use to make criminal justice decisions.
The board was set up to oversee Gov. Jerry Brown’s so-called realignment plan.
The board has published county-by-county reports on arrests, crimes and demographics, and is sharing data on how counties are dealing with realignment. Because of its improved oversight, the auditor said realignment is no longer considered a "high risk" to state government.
The audit said the change lowered the state’s prison population by about 25,300 inmates, below the cap set by federal judges, but raised the population of county jails by about 11,600 inmates statewide, a 16 percent increase.
That led to an increase in early releases as sheriffs tried to control their jail populations or stay under their own population caps. Officials previously said about 13,000 inmates a month were being released early from crowded county jails while they awaited trial or before they completed their full sentences.
Early releases likely peaked in June 2014 and appear to have dropped dramatically since voters approved Proposition 47 in November, board chairwoman Linda Penner said through a spokeswoman. The law treats certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, leading to fewer inmates in both state prisons and county jails.
Booking in Merced County in March fell about 13 percent compared to the same time last year as a result of Prop. 47, the Sheriff’s Department reported.
Sheriff Vern Warnke, an early outspoken critic of the new law, described Prop. 47 as “a double-edged sword.”
“Yes, it benefited the overall jail population, but it do so by increasing the population of criminals in public,” Warnke said. “I think it will have a negative effect on every county in the state.”
Warnke, who has also long criticized AB 109, said that, together, the major changes to the state’s criminal justice system put more residents at risk of becoming victims of crime.
Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.