The county jail in downtown Fresno has an imposing presence: Three concrete buildings up to six stories tall, with few windows, occupying a full city block and the corner of another.
Despite the jail's size, the county frees dozens of inmates each day because it lacks enough cells.
Since California counties became responsible for lower-level offenders once housed in state prisons – the result of budget woes and a federal overcrowding lawsuit – some jails have become so cramped that inmates are regularly released early to make room.
In the first nine months of 2012, counties released inmates 120,000 times because of capacity limits, a 29 percent jump over the same period the year before, according to a Bee analysis of state data.
The first period precedes the Oct. 1, 2011, start of the state law, Assembly Bill 109, also known as realignment, which makes counties responsible for offenders convicted of crimes deemed not serious, violent or sexual in nature.
Six of the 10 counties with the highest rates of capacity-related inmate releases are in the Central Valley, including five south of Sacramento along U.S. 99: San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno, Tulare and Kern. Central Valley counties have greater jail capacity problems than other parts of the state because they had previously sent a greater proportion of offenders to state prisons, experts say.
While Sacramento County has not released inmates early, Sheriff Scott Jones says every sheriff in the state will soon be required to make such decisions.
Sheriffs in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Fresno counties told The Bee that early releases from their jails have created safety risks.
"I believe the releases contribute to the crime rate," said San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore. "What I see today is what I thought was going to happen (with AB 109). We were going to have to release people to take care of the new people coming in."
The counties have different policies about which inmates they will release early, but generally don't free inmates convicted of a violent crime. Just over half of the inmates released early in the first nine months of 2012 were awaiting trial and could not afford bail, while the rest were serving a sentence for a crime.
AB 109 initially won qualified support from local governments and law enforcement groups. But concern about the law's impact has become more common across the state, said Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, president of the California State Sheriffs' Association.
"I believe the early releases are contributing to an increase in property crime," he said. "When you have inmates who are released early and not punished, and not provided access to programs, you're not discouraging them from committing more crime."
Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said such statements are tough to assess because no one has thoroughly researched the impact AB 109 has had on crime.
But in court filings, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has raised jail capacity as a concern.
In a brief filed earlier this year in a federal court case about mental health care and overcrowding in prisons, the administration pointed to limited jail capacity as a reason not to further reduce the state's prison population by about 10,000 inmates. The state has already cut its prison population by about 25,000, primarily through AB 109.
"Now is absolutely not the time to impose further obligations on already strained counties," the administration argued, adding that it would increase the "risk to public safety caused by the potential early release of offenders from county jails due to limitations on their capacity."
Brown has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to delay an order calling for the state to remove the additional inmates by December.
Drinking from a fire hose
After being released on a recent afternoon because the Fresno County jail was nearly full, Earl Williams, 59, adjusted his eyes to the sun and lit a half-smoked cigarette given to him by a passer-by.
Williams, who has previous convictions on weapons and domestic abuse charges, had been arrested the night before on a probation violation for having a cocaine pipe, he said.
"They're just wasting my time," he said of his night at the jail.
Approximately 30 of California's 58 counties release inmates regularly because of capacity restrictions. In Fresno, Sacramento and 16 other counties, jail capacity is defined by court order, the result of lawsuits brought by inmate-rights groups. Other counties have self-imposed population caps.
While reducing state prison crowding was a primary goal of AB 109, the Brown administration also touted it as a way to reduce costs and provide more rehabilitation for prisoners.
Since AB 109 went into effect in October 2011, releases have increased as lower-level offenders have been sentenced to jail instead of prison. Also, parole violators once headed for prison are now going to jail.
"Local government has not been able to handle the increase in inmates," said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer. "It's been like trying to take a drink of water out of a firehose."
Dyer points to the case of Tino Tufono as an example of what can happen as a result of the revolving door.
Tufono, who has a history of felony convictions, was being held on an auto theft charge when he was released Nov. 29, 2011, because of limited jail capacity, records show.
About a week after his release, police say, he assaulted a woman with a garden tool inside her apartment. The next day, he shot and killed a 25-year-old man and tried to behead him in front of the man's friends, according to police. Tufono is being held in the jail, where he awaits trial on murder charges.
Brown administration officials have complained about such anecdotal attacks on the changes in the justice system, saying individual examples don't mean the new system is failing. While AB 109 was primarily designed to reduce prison population, it should eventually reduce crime because offenders stand a better chance of rehabilitating in their home communities than in prison, Callison said.
Some experts said complaints about early jail releases have merit.
Kevin Wright, a criminology professor at Arizona State University, co-authored a study in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, looking at the impact of early prison releases from 2000 to 2007 on crime in Montana, which released lower level inmates because of a budget deficit.
The study found the offenders released early were nearly twice as likely to re-offend as inmates who went through the normal process for prison release, Wright said.
Under the normal process, parolees were screened to find out whether they had employment and housing when they were released. The screening was a primary reason those inmates fared better than inmates released early, Wright said.
Different release policies
California counties differ in how they determine who gets released from jail because of capacity issues.
In Stanislaus County, a Superior Court judge makes the call. The judge considers many factors, including an inmate's criminal history and housing status.
Fresno County's policy differs in that it doesn't focus on an offender's likelihood of committing another crime, said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. Instead, it considers the severity of the most recent charge and whether the inmate has been convicted yet. Those awaiting trial are more likely to get released early.
"The public would be less at risk if we had the capacity to keep everyone," Mims said.
Mims and other sheriffs say they've received more new inmates than expected under AB 109. About 20,000 inmates were sentenced to county jails under the law in the first nine months of last year.
Some sheriffs say they have been more surprised by the demand for jail space for parole offenders.
Under AB 109, county probation departments are now responsible for lower-level parolees once watched by the state. Probation officials say the offenders are more serious than they've had before.
In the first nine months of last year, about 50,000 of those offenders were booked into county jails for new crimes or other parole violations, statistics show.
Further creating demand for cell space are longer sentences meted out to AB 109 offenders. Jails that once housed county inmates for no longer than a year now have more serious offenders with sentences of five to 10 years and sometimes longer, according to a survey by the California State Sheriffs' Association.
AB 109 shifted funding to counties to help them handle new offenders. The counties will receive more than $1 billion this year to house prisoners and supervise parolees, among other things. Many counties have used the money to hire correctional officers to greater utilize existing jail space.
Some counties also are looking to tap a 2007 law that provided funding for jail construction. Stanislaus County, for instance, will use $80 million from the fund to build a maximum security facility and other jail space within three years.
The county has very little space for high-risk offenders, said Capt. Bill Duncan, who manages the jails. Most of the higher-risk offenders sentenced under AB 109 are housed in an antiquated jail built in downtown Modesto in 1959.
Neighboring San Joaquin County also had planned to expand its jail using state funds. But the Board of Supervisors recently voted against accepting an $80 million grant. The county can't afford the increase in jail operating costs – $21 million annually on top of the $49 million spent now, Sheriff Moore said.
The biggest cost of jail expansion is personnel and that will continue to vex counties seeking to relieve their capacity problems through construction, said Magnus Lofstrom, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and co-author of two reports about how jails have fared under AB 109.
Some groups have suggested a different path. A report last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union argued that too much AB 109 funding goes to jail expansion and not enough to rehabilitation, which would reduce the need for jails.
The ACLU and other groups also have been pushing counties to change their policies on pretrial detainees, saying counties could free up much-needed bed space with less expensive bail amounts.
Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.