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Saturday, Mar 13 2010 12:00 PM

Local prosecutors unhappy with law letting prisoners shave time off sentences

BY JASON KOTOWSKI, Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A new law that adds incentives that could potentially take months off certain inmates' prison sentences has local prosecutors concerned about the community's safety.

"We're going to see people serving shorter sentences and getting back on the street and re-offending sooner," Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels said. "Certainly it will adversely affect the crime rate."

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Senate Bill X3 18, which became law Jan. 25, allows certain prisoners to shave time off their sentence by doing the following:

* Up to six weeks per year can be cut off sentences by completing certain rehabilitation programs such as earning a GED or obtaining a vocational certificate.

* Existing time credits are extended to include day-for-day credit for time served in the county jail from the time of arrest.

* Two days of sentence credit are provided for every day an inmate spends training in a firefighter camp or in-house institution.

* Eligible inmates receive one day of credit for every day served whether they are on a waiting list for a full-time program assignment, participating in programs or undergoing reception center processing, as long as the inmate stays out of trouble during that time.

* The law also continues policies that cause inmates to lose credits for criminal misconduct, rules violations and violence in prison.

Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Senate Bill X3 18, which became law Jan. 25, gives prisoners the opportunity to receive numerous credits toward their sentence through activities such as firefighter training and earning a GED. For example, two days are shaved off an inmate's sentence for each day he spends in firefighter training.

The law does not apply to convicted sex offenders or prisoners convicted of felonies resulting in a strike or violent felonies such as rape or murder. The goal of the law is to reduce California's prison population by about 6,500 inmates over the course of a year, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Gordon Hinkle.

Hinkle did not have figures available on how many inmates have been released under the law. The state prisons operating in Kern County are Wasco State Prison, California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, and North Kern State Prison and Kern Valley State Prison in Delano.

The law also creates a system of non-revocable parole for certain parolees, meaning they won't be subject to traditional parole supervision upon their release, and creates and expands drug and mental health re-entry courts for parolees. In a re-entry court, a judge determines when or if a parolee goes back to prison.

Hinkle said he wouldn't describe the law as an "early release law" because inmates have to take part in certain programs to earn their credits instead of just getting released without having done anything to deserve it. The prison system has always had "good behavior" credits to earn time off a sentence and the new law just adds more opportunities for inmates to accomplish something while they're incarcerated, he said.

"It's an incentive for them not to come back to prison and to help build self-esteem and job training skills," Hinkle said.

Jagels said whether you call it an "early release law" or not, it amounts to the same thing -- inmates are doing less time. And a great many of them will just reoffend, he said.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael J. Vendrasco said the changes to the parole system mean certain parolees won't be taken back to prison even after violating the conditions of their parole. Those parolees would only be sent to prison if they committed a new crime.

"I think the goal here is to try to relieve prison overcrowding and save money, but the problem is there will be a lot more inmates released who are a danger to the public because they aren't being held long enough to change their behavior," Vendrasco said.

Kern County Public Defender Arthur R. Titus disagreed that the community would automatically be less safe under the new law because no one can tell whether someone released from prison will re-offend or stay out of trouble. He said part of the purpose of the law is to make a distinction between violent prisoners and inmates who pose less of a threat. He said the law is a necessary step because sentencing laws have become increasingly tough over the years and some inmates are serving more time than they should.

"We have a prison population that's unsustainable right now," Titus said.

As an example of trying to impose punishment that doesn't fit the crime, Titus cited the case of alleged doughnut thief Robert Fassbender. With two felony strikes against him for robberies committed nearly three decades ago, Fassbender faced life in prison for allegedly stealing a package of doughnuts from a Tehachapi convenience store in 2008.

Fassbender's history of repeated offenses convinced prosecutors to pursue a third strike against him for the alleged doughnut theft, but they ultimately dismissed the case because of insufficient evidence.

Inmates who are convicted in cases where the offense isn't egregious should be given a chance to earn time off, Titus said.

The new law has also caused confusion over how it should be applied. Hinkle said the state prison system is applying the law prospectively, but many county jails are applying it retroactively, resulting in the immediate release of certain inmates in various counties. That's the case with Kern County, which released 23 inmates when the law went into effect, Kern County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Willy Wahl said. County jail is for sentences of up to one year.

Wahl described the law as "complex," and he said the Sheriff's Department was advised by county counsel to apply it retroactively.

"If there was clear guidance and direction (in the law) I'd be happier with it," Wahl said.

Now that this law is in force, Jagels is concerned about what other legislation might be in the works.

"If we want to keep the community safe, then these offenders must be punished, incapacitated and deterred," Jagels said. "We can't do that through a process of ever-shortening sentences."

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