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Policy Will Jail Fewer Suspects

San Bernardino County sheriff will deal with overcrowding by limiting incarceration to those accused of the most serious crimes.

October 27, 2005|Lance Pugmire and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

To ease jail overcrowding, San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod has adopted a temporary policy to stop jailing suspects accused of drug offenses, theft, burglary and other nonviolent offenses if they promise to appear in court.

Some sex offenders who fail to register with police, a violation of state law, also will be booked, cited and then released from custody if they promise to show up at their scheduled court hearings.

"The sheriff's up against it here," sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Beavers said. "The sheriff is concerned about the safety of the citizens of this county. At the same time, he risks court action if he doesn't address the overcrowding that has left some inmates sleeping on [jail] floors. There are things going on in there that the law doesn't allow."

Penrod announced the measure last week in a letter to San Bernardino County Superior Court officials and law enforcement leaders throughout the county, saying nonviolent offenders whose bail was set at $500,000 or less would not be booked into county jail.

"Our overcrowding has become so critical I must take steps to reduce the jail population or face potential action from the court," Penrod wrote.

The policy will "likely increase" the county's crime rate, said San Bernardino County Assistant Dist. Atty. Jim Hackleman: "We are sympathetic to the sheriff and understand there is an [inmate capacity] cap he has to meet, but we are quite concerned."

Fontana police spokesman Sgt. William Megenney said the new policy "sends a dangerous message to the criminal element, that if you do get caught doing something like dealing meth or writing bad checks, all that happens is that you get a ticket."

Since 2004, jail overcrowding has forced Penrod to issue early releases to an average of 700 inmates per month. Those released have included inmates near the end of their sentences, those booked on warrants with a bail of $150,000 or less and inmates eligible to be released on their own recognizance pending trial. Sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller said officials had yet to establish how many additional inmates would be released under the new policy.

The policy is being described as a temporary fix until the county opens a new 700-bed jail in Adelanto in January.

Currently, sheriff's officials say, the 5,500 beds at the county's three jails in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino and Devore are frequently filled.

"We'll get some relief with the Adelanto jail, but that jail will not solve the overcrowding problem," Beavers said.

Under terms of a 1998 lawsuit settlement, San Bernardino County agreed to provide an elevated bed for each inmate. Before, inmates were often forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor. But because of the lawsuit, the county has room for no more than 5,500 inmates. When the jail population approaches 90% capacity, Penrod is forced by the lawsuit agreement to release inmates early.

The legal agreement was the result of a lawsuit filed in 1987 by the American Civil Liberties Union to protest jail conditions.

Penrod and the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors are reviewing a proposal to build a 3,000-bed jail in Apple Valley, Beavers said.

That jail wouldn't be completed until at least 2010, however, Beavers said.

The Sheriff's Department will employ detention review officers at the jails -- deputies who are empowered to make exceptions of those whose bail is less than $500,000 if their criminal history merits a jail stay.

"We're relaxing the guidelines, but it's not, 'Oh, you're here for burglary, here's a ticket, goodbye,' " said Lt. Bob Bonnet, executive officer at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

Anyone arrested on suspicion of committing a violent felony, including homicide, rape, robbery or child abuse, will be jailed, Beavers said. Those arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics will be jailed until sober.

County Supervisor Paul Biane, whose district includes two of three county jails, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Board Chairman Bill Postmus, who represents the high desert.

Bob Page, chief of staff for Supervisor Josie Gonzales, said his boss was concerned about the new jail release policy but said Gonzales was confident that sheriff's officials would do their best to keep dangerous criminals off the streets.

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