In Fresno County, the financial crisis caused deep budget cuts at the sheriff’s office. The sheriff laid off corrections officers and reduced the number of jail inmates. And now, some argue, auto thefts are on the rise because there are more criminals on the streets.
While this particular scenario is playing out in Fresno, some version of it could be coming to communities all over California.
One of Gov. Jerry Brown’s key budget fixes is shifting non-violent, low-level inmates from overcrowded state prisons to county jails – many of which are crowded too. It is cheaper for California to house them locally and the governor’s office estimates saving $458 million with the change.
But it is not clear exactly how the county facilities will take these thousands of felons. Even if state officials avoid an early release program, local agencies might enact some kind of initiative themselves.
In 2009, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office decided it could not afford to hold the inmates it already had after a round of funding cuts. The Fresno Bee reported that Sheriff Margaret Mims has eliminated 75 positions, with jail staffing taking the brunt of the hit to protect regular patrol jobs. Mims last year filed a lawsuit against the county’s board of supervisors to protect her discretion over the sheriff’s office budget.
Over the past year and a half, roughly 15,000 inmates have been released early, according to the Bee.
That fact is causing new troubles for residents, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says.
Car thieves exit jail immediately after being booked as part of the sheriff’s policy of not holding suspects on property crimes. Suspects in violent crimes remain incarcerated.
But car theft has long been a significant problem in Fresno, even as rates of the offense have declined. As the Bee explains:
Dyer said thefts began dropping in the 1990s when the Fresno County Jail was expanded and car thieves could be kept in custody.
Thefts bottomed out in 2009, when 3,248 vehicles were reported stolen. But in August of that year, staff cutbacks prompted the county jail to begin releasing inmates in earnest.
Local law enforcement officials have not unanimously denounced Brown’s proposal, nor embraced it. Many have taken approaches similar to that of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
The Los Angeles Daily News reports that Baca recently said he agrees with some of the governor’s proposals (though not all) for shifting corrections functions back to the county level.
“These criminals are ours,” Baca said. “They begin here and they're coming back here.”