Early releases blamed in Fresno crimes

FRESNO -- At least one in three inmates released early from the Fresno County Jail since 2008 has landed back in jail for new crimes, sometimes within hours, an analysis by The Fresno Bee has found.

Many inmates were arrested and released repeatedly -- up to five times -- over a 28-month period.

It's unclear how many of the crimes might have occurred without early release. But Fresno police say the jail's revolving door is contributing to a recent spike in burglaries and auto thefts, in part because repeat offenders know they have a good chance of getting released early.

Police and Fresno County judges warn that unless the Fresno County Sheriff's Department revamps how it handles early releases, problems with repeat offenders are likely to grow.

"Inmates are being released pretrial with little incentive to appear on the date prescribed by the jail and many have no reason not to re-offend," presiding Superior Court Judge Bruce Smith said.

The analysis found that from January 2008 to mid-April, at least 789 of 2,444 inmates released early from the jail have been booked again on suspicion of committing other crimes.

The analysis used records of jail releases and bookings, obtained from the Sheriff's Department, and did not count those who may have been arrested outside Fresno County or merely cited. Some new charges may stem from incidents before the early release, but jail records don't include incident dates.

More than 90 percent of the early releases have happened since August, when Sheriff Margaret Mims made cuts at the jail.

Citing a lack of funding, a point hotly disputed by county supervisors, the sheriff has cut jail capacity in half in less than two years.

Burglary, auto theft rising

Law enforcement officials, including Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Smith, are upset about the early releases.

Two of the most common charges for inmates released early are burglary and auto theft, both of which are on the rise in Fresno this year.

Mims declined to be interviewed. Speaking on her behalf, Undersheriff Scott Jones and Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie said they're frustrated by having to release inmates early, but the Sheriff's Department doesn't have the money to keep them locked up, they said.

"We don't like this one bit," Gattie said.

The early releases, which have become an issue in the re-election bids of Supervisors Phil Larson and Judy Case, aren't likely to stop and might get worse.

Facing an $18 million shortfall in the coming budget, the Sheriff's Department expects to lay off more correctional officers but will try to maintain the 1,900 beds in the jail, Jones and Gattie said.

However, Mims said in April that she expected a further reduction in jail capacity as a result of budget cuts.

Mims, who took office in January 2007 after vowing not to release inmates early, has consistently been at odds with county supervisors over whether she has enough money to run the jail.

Supervisors cut, then restored, her budget in 2008, after Mims threatened to release inmates early.

Nevertheless, citing budget and safety issues, Mims closed an aging satellite jail in August 2008, eliminating 300 beds.

In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, county administrators said the Sheriff's Department was the only county department that didn't get its budget cut. Still, citing increased costs, Mims said she didn't have the money she needed for the jail, and proceeded to lay off correctional officers in August.

In January, Mims said revenue wasn't meeting projections, and she would have to make more cuts at the jail. Supervisors directed her to make cuts elsewhere, but Mims sued, saying supervisors violated her authority as sheriff. Superior Court Judge Donald Franson Jr. sided with Mims last month, clearing the way for more layoffs.

Jail beds reduced by half

Since Mims took office, jail capacity has been cut from 3,800 beds to 1,900 beds. A federal consent decree requires early releases when the jail reaches capacity. As a result, inmates were released early more than 2,000 times in April.

Inmates are well aware of the early release policy, said Josie Ruiz, a correctional officer and union official. One of the first things they ask when they're booked into the jail is when will they get out, she said.

By repeatedly releasing inmates early, the county has emboldened many repeat offenders, said Dyer, Fresno's police chief.

Police say many repeat offenders fit the same profile: drug addicts and abusers who repeatedly steal to support their habits.

Several inmates released early also have been charged with violent crimes once they got out -- including 16 people charged with assault with a deadly weapon, 21 people charged with felony domestic abuse, and 12 people charged with robbery.