SACRAMENTO -- Thousands of inmates could soon be reassigned from Los Angeles County jails to home detention to relieve overcrowding, under legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"This bill provides local law enforcement with the tools to relieve severe overcrowding in county jails," said Bill Maile, a spokesman for the governor.
Sheriff Lee Baca pushed the measure to help address the criticism he has received for releasing thousands of prisoners who served only a fraction of their time behind bars.
The new law, effective immediately, "helps to ease overcrowding, although it's not the final answer," said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Baca. "It's a step in the right direction."
Baca has indicated he plans to order about 2,000 inmates at a time who have committed low-level offenses to be reassigned to their homes, where they will be monitored by electronic ankle bracelets.
Currently, inmates must volunteer for home detention. On Wednesday, there were 413 offenders assigned to electronic monitoring in a jail population of 19,614, according to Sheriff's Cmdr. Alexander Yim.
The legislation, SB 959, allows sheriffs throughout the state to order involuntary assignment to the electronic monitoring program.
"This is a priority for us, so we will jump right on it," Yim said.
The early-release practice has been controversial, most recently when Baca tried to reassign heiress Paris Hilton to detention in her Hollywood Hills luxury home in June. A judge ordered her back to jail for violating probation imposed after an alcohol-related reckless driving conviction.
The legislation requires supervisors in California counties to make a finding that the jails in their county are overcrowded, something Baca expects will be easy to document in Los Angeles County, which is under a court order to end overcrowding.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who carried the bill, said it will probably mean many fewer inmates released onto the streets before their time is served. It will also help with the county's budget problems, she said.
"Not only will this bill free up bed space in jails, but it will also cost the counties much less to place inmates on electronic monitoring than to house them in jail," Romero said.
Several Republican lawmakers opposed the bill on grounds that criminals should serve full sentences in jail. However, the Republican governor said the measure was a reasonable solution to a serious problem.
Among the other 25 bills that Schwarzenegger signed Wednesday was one intended to help indigent inmates readjust to life after jail. The legislation, SB 718, by state Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), authorizes sheriffs to use money from their county's Inmate Welfare Fund to provide offenders with transitional assistance programs, such as housing and job placement.
The Inmate Welfare Fund comes from profits at the jail store, where inmates purchase candy, supplies, postage, writing materials and toiletries.
"In a time when recidivism among parolees is of great concern to the public," Scott said, "this bill will help them to find the jobs, schooling or treatment they need when they leave the prison system."
His bill, which takes effect in January, sets up a pilot program in Los Angeles and Orange counties, among several other locales.