State

Ceres murder suspect on work release

When a 20-year-old man was arrested last week on suspicion of murder in connection with a Modesto home invasion robbery, he was in a program that allowed him to be released from custody and work in exchange for jail time.

With additional budget cuts looming for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, more inmates could be forced into this work release program to make space at the county's jails.

Hector Rocha Jr., 20, of Ceres was arrested along with four others on suspicion that they were involved in the March 25 robbery that ended with the fatal shooting of 32-year-old Julio Jimenez.

Rocha was a part of the Alternative Work Program administered by the Sheriff's Department when he was taken into custody in connection with Jimenez's death.

Every day worked equals one day in jail. The program's purpose is to allow the Sheriff's Department to manage the jail population and lessen the burden on taxpayers who pay to house inmates.

The program allows inmates deemed not to be a risk to the public to serve their time while being with their families.

"You don't know who is going to go out and commit more crimes," said Undersheriff Bill Heyne about the work program participants. "The problem is we don't have room (in the jail)."

Rocha was convicted of possession-manufacturing or selling a dangerous weapon, according to sheriff's officials. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and had served about 2½ months when he was arrested last week.

Rocha's attorney did not return a call for comment Thursday. Additional information about Rocha's conviction was not available.

Sheriff's officials said Rocha had missed some scheduled workdays and probably would have been arrested for violating the terms of his sentence had he not been arrested in connection with the robbery.

After the shooting, Jimenez was found with multiple gunshot wounds in a home's back yard in the 600 block of Thrasher Avenue. He died at a hospital.

Rocha and the four other suspects were taken into custody after a cross-town pursuit, Modesto police said.

The suspects were arrested on suspicion of murder and home invasion robbery, with enhancements to their charges on suspicion of participating in a felony crime for the benefit of a street gang.

Rocha was being held at the Stanislaus County Jail on Thursday. His bail was set at $2 million.

He entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment and is scheduled to appear in court again Wednesday, said Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley.

The work program is designed for inmates convicted of less serious crimes including driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license, forgery, petty theft, grand theft, fighting in public and evading arrest.

Sheriff's Lt. Ronald Lloyd said determining who gets to participate in the work program is done on a case-by-case basis.

The program, however, is not for inmates convicted of serious felonies such as selling drugs, sex crimes or violent crimes. Lloyd also said repeat offenders of lesser crimes most likely wouldn't be allowed in the program.

The inmates have to apply to participate, and pay a $50 application fee and $10 fee for each workday. Lloyd said the fees pay the administrative costs of the program and do not generate any profit.

Some inmates who prove they can't afford the fees can be allowed to participate for free.

About 400 inmates participate in the program. Only inmates serving a sentence of 90 days or less can join.

The inmates can have a job lined up or be assigned work by the Sheriff's Department, such as working at an animal shelter or a park, painting over graffiti or removing garbage from blighted neighborhoods.

The work has to benefit the community through a government or nonprofit agency. Private businesses or individual residents can't benefit from the inmate's labor.

With the Sheriff's Department facing $7 million to $8 million in budget cuts next year, Heyne said the department could be forced to lay off patrol deputies and jail guards and close part of the Honor Farm, the minimum-security jail that houses roughly 322 inmates.

He said the cuts could result in about 400 fewer beds for inmates. Released Honor Farm inmates likely would be transferred to the work program or placed in home detention, where inmates are monitored electronically with global positioning system devices.

"It could come to a point when only the baddest of the bad are housed," Heyne said about jail capacity. "There's no room in the inn."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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