Stacia Glenn and Michael J. Sorba, Staff Writers
Posted: 01/28/2010 07:18:35 PM PST

Law enforcement officials throughout the region and across the state are bracing for a possible spike in crime as thousands of state and county prisoners are returned to the streets under a new law aimed at cutting government expenses.

More than 130 non-violent San Bernardino County jail inmates have been turned loose early since Monday and more than 1,000 others could soon join them on the outside.

That’s in addition to 6,500 non-violent state prison inmates who are slated for early release in the next 12 months.

“Even though the prisoners that will be released may not be violent offenders, they’re still offenders and I don’t think we should be surprised to see our property crimes increase,” Redlands Police Chief Jim Bueermann said.

The state’s Department of Finance estimates Senate Bill 18 will save anywhere from $400 million to $500 million annually by issuing more time-served credits for good behavior and placing low-risk offenders on unsupervised parole.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Phelps said the law amending the state penal code also affects inmates in county jails.

A group of judges, prosecutors and public defenders are reviewing about 300 San Bernardino County inmates each day. In all, they’ll inspect the files of more than 1,200 inmates held in San Bernardino County jails who could be eligible for early release.

“If (inmates) are eligible, they’re recalculating their release date from one-third to half-time off for good and hard work credits,” said sheriff’s Lt. Tom Bradford, who oversees Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore. “We’re going to be releasing inmates all week.”

State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Gordon Hinkle said the new law will only apply to low-risk inmates incarcerated for non-violent crimes. The law will not apply to sex offenders, gang members, murderers or other violent criminals.

“This is a very targeted group. These are people that we expect will make it on the outside,” Hinkle said.

Hinkle says parole officer caseload ratios will fall from 70-1 to 45-1 and will allow them to “focus their efforts on violent offenders and gang members.”

Upon release, qualifying offenders will still be subject to warrantless search and seizure by local police, Hinkle said. He describes the law as the parole reform that many activists have called for to reduce prison spending and recidivism.

San Bernardino Police Chief Keith Kilmer said his administrators have kept in close contact with probation and parole officials, having regular meetings to discuss the changing law and how law enforcement will be affected.

The department’s four parole coordinators will continue to closely monitor prisoners who are released early, even those who are given “unsupervised” parole.

And while the chief said he has noticed a “slight” increase in non-violent offenders returning to San Bernardino this week, he believes that police can handle the influx of criminals returning to the area.

“I think we’re all mindful that a higher level of recidivists are going to impact public safety, including the crime decreases we’ve seen,” Kilmer said. “As long as we stay in tune with that and we’re managing our parolee populations, then I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to keep a handle on it.”

San Bernardino officials have been seeking funding to implement the Community Re-entry Education/Employment Services and Training Program, which would provide high-risk offenders with support and services that they need.

Kent Paxton, Director of Community Safety and Violence Prevention for San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris, said Cal State San Bernardino is negotiating a contract with the state corrections department that would bring a day reporting center to the city.

The center would require high-risk offenders to physically report to the center each day and participate in classes to help them successfully re-enter society.

Carolyn Eggleston, director of Cal State’s Center for the Study of Correctional Education, said such a center would work with state parole officers and local police departments.

“We had a problem before (the law took effect),” Eggleston said. “In San Bernardino, we’ve had a high rate of (parolees) coming back to our community. Having additional numbers released, it just exacerbates the problem.”

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