By Brad Branan
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 – 8:24 am

Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to transfer state inmates to county jails faces a simple obstacle: Many jails don’t have the space to hold them.

Just as the state has struggled with prison overcrowding, some counties have had their own problems keeping inmates locked up. Statewide, tens of thousands of inmates are released early from county jails each year because of space constraints.

Jail crowding was on the minds of many sheriffs when Brown announced in his budget proposal last week his plan to give them responsibility for more than 40,000 lower-level offenders and parole violators.

“We don’t have the space,” said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who once ran the county’s two jails. “The Main Jail is full or over-full every day.”

If Brown’s plan is approved, Jones and other sheriffs say, they would have to release inmates early to make room for state prisoners.

Administration officials say they are still working on the plan and hope to come up with ways of helping counties with limited jail space. One option would be through AB 900, which authorized $7.4 billion in bonds for jail construction and rehabilitation projects four years ago.

Jails in 20 counties – including Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado – are under court orders to release inmates when they become too crowded. Jails in the four counties often operate at or near capacity.

Jail crowding has been most acute in urban areas, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno.

Inmate transfers are part of Brown’s wide-ranging plan to shift government services to the counties.

At least in theory, sheriffs don’t think the transfers are a bad idea. They agree with Brown that local government is better positioned to provide the service.

But in addition to overcrowding concerns, sheriffs are worried that funding won’t cover the cost of housing the transferred inmates, given the state’s financial troubles.

Brown’s current budget proposal calls for $1.5 billion to go to counties for incarceration and other correctional costs.

It’s unknown if that amount would satisfy county sheriffs, because details of the transfer plan are still under discussion.

The funding depends on voters approving an extension of previous vehicle license fee and sales tax increases in June.

That requirement deepens the anxiety of some sheriffs, who wonder if it will pass.

Counties would receive nonviolent inmates under the governor’s proposal. They would also become responsible for parole violators whose original crime might have been violent.

Brown has been meeting with law enforcement officials to discuss the inmate transfers. Nick Warner, legislative director of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said he’s been impressed by the governor’s engagement.

But Brown has a tough plan to sell, Warner said. “Absent an adequate funding source, it’s a major public safety risk,” he said.

Other Sacramento-area sheriffs share Warner’s concerns. They say they understand the state’s financial hardship, and think counties have to share the burden.

But, the sheriffs added, they will have a hard time backing a plan that jeopardizes public safety.

Layoffs at the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department forced the county to release about 30 inmates early from one of its jails last fall, Sheriff Ed Prieto said.

“We’re maxed out pretty much all the time,” he said. “The only thing we could do is release county inmates to make room for state inmates.”

One of his two jails is bound by a federal consent decree. He said the decree requires him to release inmates when the jail reaches 90 percent of capacity.

Almost half of county jails with population caps – there were 45 of them in the state – were at least 90 percent full last March, the most recent month available, according to data from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Jail population varies by season, and in August 2009, almost three-fourths of the jails were at least 90 percent full.

A couple of years ago, Placer County was releasing inmates who were serving half their sentences on average, said Capt. George Malim, corrections commander for the Sheriff’s Department.

Placer has used electronic monitoring to free up jail space, he said, adding that the county also is building an $80 million jail, scheduled for completion in two years, to handle its rapid growth.

He said the county didn’t anticipate using the new jail for state inmates.

In El Dorado County, Sheriff John D’Agostini echoed the overcrowding concerns of his colleagues in the region.

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