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Early prisoner release causes waves

Since Jan. 25, nonviolent offenders have been let out ahead of schedule
By: ERIC LAUGHLIN Gold Country News Service
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Well before the sun came up Thursday, there was a very excited young man waiting for a friend to pick him up outside the Placer County Jail. Feso Malufau, a resident of Hawaii, had been housed in the Auburn facility since October following a DUI conviction. He wasn’t expecting to be let out until mid April, but a new state law mandating early inmate releases assured his return to civilization a bit earlier than planned. It’s been a month since the jail and others throughout the state began releasing non-violent inmates ahead of schedule under the law that hit the books Jan. 25. While some officials hope the practice will save the state money, others are concerned it will burden local agencies and put more criminals on the streets. Sheriff’s Capt. George Malim serves as commander of the Auburn jail. Malim said he’s frustrated with the early release mandate and the law’s changes to the state parole system. Though official statistics were unavailable, Malim estimated the number of Placer County early releases to be about 100 or more. Signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year in an effort to ease state prison overcrowding, the legislation was structured to save the cash-strapped state an estimated $1.2 billion annually by allowing early release of non-violent offenders. But since going into effect, most counties, including Placer, have interpreted the law to also apply to local jails. That assertion was recently confirmed by state Attorney General Jerry Brown. Capt. Malim said the law doesn’t just compromise the safety of citizens, but also puts pressure on the Auburn jail. “It’s a state pushdown to the county jails,” he said. “The state may end up saving money, but it’s not going to save us anything.” The way the law is written, inmates in both county jails and state prisons will receive one day’s credit for every day served, allowing them to get out in half the time. Another change is the way parolees are dealt with when they violate the terms of their prison release. Prior to Jan. 25, they were generally sent back to prison for simple violations. Now they will be housed in county jail while they go through the legal system for their new charges. “It means the DA is going to have to prosecute more cases than it has been,” Malim said. “And the inmate’s going to stay here throughout that whole process.” Malim said the law’s guarantee of the same time credits used by prisons will give county inmates less of an incentive to speed up the resolution of their cases. “A lot of people are going to just stay in jail as long as they can if they realize they’re getting the same time credits,” he said. Prior to the law going into effect, jail inmates were generally serving a full two-thirds of their sentence. Auburn resident Harriet Salarno chairs the statewide foundation Crime Victims United and said she opposes the early releases of inmates. “This is a clear violation of the state’s constitution,” she said. “The voters approved Proposition 9 so the governor can’t do early releases.” Proposition 9, also known as Marsy’s Law, was an initiative that amended the state’s constitution to enhance victims’ rights. It passed in November 2008 with 53.8 percent of the vote. Salarno started the charitable lobbying organization in 1990 following the brutal murder of her daughter. She said she’s very concerned about dangerous inmates re-entering society. Placerville defense attorney Steve Tapson, who’s handled cases locally, said he shares Malim’s criticism of the law for how it holds re-offending parolees in local jails instead of prison. But he said he believes releasing non-violent inmates early is good for the inmates and for the taxpayers. “I don’t know why any jail commander would be against releasing non-violent people ahead of schedule,” he said. “Not only is it good from a taxpayer point of view, but it will also give these low-risk offenders incentive to change their lives.” The veteran attorney did acknowledge a recent incident in which one of the estimated 2,000 or so statewide inmates released under the law got out and assaulted a woman. “It’s a rare aberration,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is, there’s always one exception.” Capt. Malim said he hopes the county will never be put in the position to release violent or sexual offenders. “Hopefully it won’t ever come to that,” he said. “But we’ll have to see what happens with the law, there are court issues all over the place right now. But in the meantime, the law is what the law is.” Earlier this month, a Sacramento Superior Court judge halted early releases in that county, but later reversed his ruling. The state prison system has not yet released prisoners early under the law. As for Malufau, the waves in Hawaii are likely looking a lot better than his cell in Auburn. “I’m so stoked to be out right now,” he said. “I have a new surfboard waiting for me when I get back home.”