BAKERSFIELD - Kern County jails released nearly 10,000 inmates early in 2012 due to overcrowding. So who is being let back onto the streets and how does the jail decide?
It's a subjective decision according to jail staff. They release petty thieves or parole violators before sex offenders, all in an effort to keep the community safe and jail bed space available.
It's a happy day for Ryan Shuagis and his family.
"My heart's been pounding since they called my name, you know," said Shuagis.
After serving 17 days of his 120-day sentence for violating parole he was released from jail.
"There's good and bad in every release," said Shuagis. "It's just how they do it."
Brent Evans was in for a parole violation. He served 19 days of his 155-day sentence.
"We're not violent offenders. We just want to go home just like anybody else to their families, and that's what I am going to do," said Evans.
Evans and Shuagis are just two of 50 Kern County inmates released early that day convicted of parole violations, burglary, and receiving stolen property. Every one was released after serving a fraction of their sentence.
"I wish we didn't have to, but we have to. It's a law," said Shannon Hixon, Senior Detentions Deputy for Lerdo Jail's classification unit.
The court ordered the law in the 1990s, mandating the jail to remain below its 2,844 bed capacity. That triggered thousands of early releases, however, staff says prison realignment has amplified the numbers from 6,544 in 2010 to 10,688 in 2012.
"There's not enough space," said Lt. Greg Gonzales, Population Management Section for the Kern County Sheriff's Department.
That's partly because many more inmates are coming to county jail who prior to prison realignment, would have gone to state prison. Lt. Gonzales said 30 percent of Lerdo's inmates would have been in state prison three years ago.
"That number is going to continue to climb. That number climbs we have to let someone else go," said Lt. Gonzales.
Staff say it could be worse. Since realignment, the jail has created more than 1,100 alternative custody spots where inmates are released but either electronically monitored, on parole or in a work release program.
"If we didn't have these programs the inmates would be free without any type of supervision," said Lt. Gonzales.
Even with the programs, releases still happen every Monday through Friday, kicking out on average 850 to 900 inmates a month.
"The job of releasing people early is an unpopular task," said Lt. Gonzales.
But, it's taken head-on each morning by hand-picked jail staff in the classification unit.
"It's our intention to keep the worst of the worst in custody," said Senior Detentions Deputy Hixon.
First, staff decide how many to release, taking a look at the jail's capacity and how many new arrests they expect.
"On a daily basis, 105 inmates are processed in the Downtown Jail," said Lt. Gonzales.
If staff anticipate more will land in lock-up, like on nights of big stings, busts, or even when there are eager new deputies on patrol, the jail will release more.
"Once we start booking more into the jail we have to release more out of the jail. We just don't have the space for them," said Sr. Deputy Hixon.
So jail staff pick the best candidates.
"The more you do it, the more it makes sense," said Lt. Gonzales.
Inmates who serve the most time get the kick out first. On this Monday, it was Courtney Alspach.
"Back to Bakersfield. I don't know where I'm at," said Alspach.
Alspach served 17 percent of her 120-day sentence for burglary.
"I don't know about them, but for me I ain't trying to come back to this place ever again," said Alspach.
So far she hasn't re-offended. Alspach is a typical early release, a non-violent offender.
"I like to think we keep the worst of the worst and we let go what we can," said Lt. Gonzales.
Jail staff said they steer away from releasing sex offenders and violent gang members, leaning more toward hopefuls like inmates who participate in the in-custody programs, like adult school and drug treatment classes. In fact, the jail is offering more courses since realignment.
"A lot of opportunities for people now with the programs," said Shuagis. "They can do a lot for their lives now."
"I actually hope now that we are reaching some of these people," said Lt. Gonzales.
But, right now statistics show the majority are re-offending. According to the District Attorney's Office, of the non-violent offenders released since realignment, 47 percent have re-offended. Of those, 10 percent re-offended within the first week, 53 percent within the first three months, 94 percent within a year. But, staff think the jail has reached a turning point.
"I've seen successes I've never seen previously," said Lt. Gonzales.
"Not everybody trusts us, but we know somebody does," said Evans.
A somebody that hopes Brent Evans, Ryan Shuagis, and Courtney Alspach leave Lerdo early and check out for good.
"When I see that group of 30 or 40, I'm hoping that five to ten don't come back," said Lt. Gonzales. "I don't want to touch just one."