- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The number of inmates being released by county jails increased by 37 percent statewide during the first three years after California began sending lower-level offenders to local lockups instead of state prisons, state auditors said Tuesday.

The number of local inmates freed early in one month increased from about 10,200 in September 2011, just before the change in state law, to more than 14,000 in June 2014, the most recent available date. The June 2014 release rate was slightly higher than previously reported.

In its report Tuesday, the state auditor praised the Board of State and Community Corrections for doing a better job of collecting information about inmates that counties can use to make criminal justice decisions.

The board was set up to oversee Gov. Jerry Brown’s so-called realignment plan, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, non-sexual and less serious crimes to county jails to help reduce the strain on California’s crowded prisons.

The board has published county-by-county reports on arrests, crimes and demographics, and is sharing data on how counties are dealing with realignment. Because of its improved oversight, the auditor said realignment is no longer considered a “high risk” to state government.

The audit said the change lowered the state’s prison population by about 25,300 inmates, below the cap set by federal judges, but raised the population of county jails by about 11,600 inmates statewide, a 16 percent increase.

That led to an increase in early releases as sheriffs tried to control their jail populations or stay under their own population caps. Officials previously said about 13,000 inmates a month were being released early from crowded county jails while they awaited trial or before they completed their full sentences.

The audit cited board data showing that 26 of the 58 counties reported increasing the number of early releases since realignment began in October 2011, eight saw a decrease, while the remaining 24 counties had no early releases.

Early releases likely peaked in June 2014 and appear to have dropped dramatically since voters approved Proposition 47 in November, board chairwoman Linda Penner said through a spokeswoman. The law treats certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, leading to fewer inmates in both state prisons and county jails.

Cory Salzillo, a spokesman for the California State Sheriffs’ Association, declined comment.

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