Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2014
Jesus Ysasaga had been arrested multiple times and ordered by the court to keep away from his ex-girlfriend. Two parole boards sentenced him to nearly a year in jail for stalking, drunkenness and battery.
But the Fresno County jail would not keep him.
Four times in the summer of 2012, authorities let Ysasaga go, refusing two times to even book him. The jail had no room.
Ysasaga’s attorney, Jerry Lowe, said the parade of convicted offenders being turned away from the jail was common. “It became quite a joke,” he said.
Across California, more than 13,500 inmates are being released early each month to relieve crowding in local jails–a 34% increase over the last three years. A Times investigation shows a significant shift in who is being let out of jail, how early and where.
The releases spring from an effort begun in 2011 to divert low-level offenders from crowded state prisons to local jails. The move had a cascade effect, forcing local authorities to release their least dangerous inmates to make room for more serious offenders.
State and local officials say that they are making every effort to ensure the releases pose little danger to the public, freeing those believed to be the least risky convicts, usually parole violators and those convicted of misdemeanors.
But an analysis of jail data has found that incarceration in some counties has been curtailed or virtually eliminated for a variety of misdemeanors, including parole violations, domestic violence, child abuse, drug use and driving under the influence.
In Los Angeles County, with a quarter of California’s jail population, male inmates often are released after serving as little as 10% of their sentences and female prisoners after 5%.
Fresno County logs show the jail is releasing criminals convicted of crimes that used to rate prison time: fraud, forgery and trafficking in stolen goods.
For law enforcement agents, the jailhouse revolving door is frustrating.
Leopoldo Arellano, 39, was in and out of custody at least 18 times from 2012 to 2014 for violating parole, criminal threats and at least four incidents of domestic battery, according to Los Angeles County jail logs.
San Diego County let parolee Demetrius Roberts go early 12 times; mostly for removing or tampering with his GPS tracker, which he was required to wear as a convicted sex offender.
In Stockton last year, a furor erupted over the repeated releases of Sidney DeAvila, another convicted sex offender. He had been brought to the San Joaquin County jail 11 times in 2012 and 2013 for disarming his GPS tracker, drug use and other parole violations.
He was freed nearly every time within 24 hours, even when he was brought to the jail by the state’s Fugitive Apprehension Team.
Days after being let out early in February 2013, DeAvila went to his grandmother’s house, raped and killed the 76-year-old woman, then chopped her body into pieces. He was found later that day with the woman’s jewelry around his neck.
The family is suing the state and San Joaquin County for negligence. DeAvila pleaded guilty to murder and rape last month and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), a former City Council member, said the parole system has no teeth. “It’s justice by Nerf ball,” she said. “We designed a system that doesn’t work.”
The problem stems from the huge increase in the number of state prisoners over the last four decades, spurred by increasingly harsh sentencing laws passed during the war on drugs. Felons could serve decades behind bars for repeat convictions of drug use and other nonviolent crimes.
From a relatively stable population of less than 25,000 in the 1970s, the number of state prisoners rose to a high of 174,000 in 2007.
Crowding reached dangerous levels, leading federal judges to rule in 2009 that the conditions were unconstitutional. When Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011, the state was under orders to cap prison counts at 110,000.
Brown’s solution, called “realignment,” shifted the responsibility for parole violators and lower-level felons to the counties, putting inmates closer to home and potentially improving their prospects for rehabilitation.
Lawmakers tried to ease the load on counties by expanding credits for good behavior and jailhouse work, cutting most sentences in half. Even with that, state officials concede, they knew jails did not have enough room.
The shift flooded county jails, many of which already were freeing convicted offenders under a melange of local court rulings, federal orders and self-imposed caps.
The number of prisoners released from county jail because of crowding has grown from an average of 9,700 a month in 2011 to over 13,500 a month today, according to state jail commission figures. In October, those records show releases surged to over 17,400.