San Diego County's jails are now granting early releases to dozens of 'low-risk' inmates on a daily basis, because of a new law that's downsizing the state's prison population.
Before what's called 'realignment' of the state's correctional system took effect last October, local agencies were optimistic they could accommodate the influx of felons now sentenced to jails instead of prisons.
But there was a spike in other numbers, to the verge of overcrowding.
Still, authorities insist, there's no need for alarm.
"We're not afraid of the mission," Sheriff Bill Gore told reporters Friday. "We have -- in my opinion -- an easy act to follow, if you will. The state had the highest recidivism rate in the United States, of about 70 percent.
"Our challenge," Gore added, "is going to be to lower that recidivism rate -- to better prepare these inmates to re-enter our communities."
Officials say the 'early-out' inmates, who are getting 10 percent-of-sentence discounts that go back decades, aren't 'the worst-of-the worst'.
They've committed non-violent, non-serious, non-sex-related crimes.
In many cases -- more than local agencies were led to expect -- they're parole violators that the state no long wants behind prison bars, as newly-sentenced, low-risk felons now go to county jails.
Criminologists emphasize there's a rigorous screening and evaluation process.
"It's not the flip of the coin, who's going to get out of our jails," says Cynthia Burke, Ph.D., director of criminal justice research for the San Diego Assn. of Governments. "
"These aren't the people who would have gone to state prison who are getting out right now," Burke explains.
Local police and probation officers are getting a 'heads-up' when early releases come out.
And rehabilitation agencies are moving fast, to help mitigate the underlying factors of criminal behavior.
"I don't think this is any cause for panic," Gore said. "Certainly I don't like releasing people early -- a few days, a week to two weeks early -- but we have to do it to manage our jail population."
The big priorities now, as a result of realignment, are to bring more resources and officers into the probation system.
And, to expand jail capacity.
Over the next three years, the county is planning building projects to increase 'bed space' by more than one-third.
While local agencies are getting reimbursements from the state, they're in amounts nowhere near what the state spends, per-ca-pita, on housing and parole-supervising inmates.
Gov. Brown and the Legislature are working to come up with a permanent 'funding mechanism' for realignment, but money in the current economic climate is tight, and many voters are tax-averse.