Jim Patterson, Andy Vidak push new bill aimed at jails' revolving doors

The Fresno BeeFebruary 7, 2014 

Two central San Joaquin Valley legislators said Friday they think they have an answer to the revolving door at many of the state's jails.

Assembly Member Jim Patterson of Fresno and Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford introduced SB 957 -- legislation that would require inmates with sentences of 10 years or more to serve them in state prison.

The Valley Republicans face an uphill climb at getting their bill passed -- both work in bodies with decidedly Democratic majorities. Still, they were upbeat Friday.

"We think it is a good fix to a bad idea," Patterson said as he took aim at legislation signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 that has diverted non-violent -- yet serious -- inmates with multi-year sentences to county jails in order to alleviate prison overcrowding.

At a downtown Fresno news conference (video), Patterson and Vidak said that law has been a public-safety disaster because county jails are already overcrowded and aren't designed to handle inmates serving long sentences.

If SB 957 is approved, it would free up hundreds of beds in county jails statewide, Vidak and Patterson said.

"This early release, revolving-door prison plan is deeply flawed and recklessly dangerous," Patterson told a gathering of reporters. "We must act now to relieve counties form housing these serious offenders who are putting our communities at risk."

Patterson and Vidak were flanked Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, Kings County District Attorney Greg Strickland and other law enforcement officials.

"Our jail was not built for these serious felons," Egan said.

A survey last year by the California State Sheriffs Association found that there were about 1,110 inmates statewide each serving five to 10 years in a county jail and about 45 jail inmates serving 10 years or more.

Of those 45, three are in the Fresno County Jail, serving sentences of 16, 18, and 19 years, Egan said.

"They are taking up space that we could use," Egan said.

Vidak said Strickland encouraged him to tackle the problem.

Strickland said the issue came to the forefront after Randall Murray Allison, who was running cocaine from Los Angeles to British Columbia, was stopped on Interstate 5 in Kings County in July 2012.

The California Highway Patrol found about 200 pounds of cocaine worth $2 million in hidden compartments in Allison's car -- the largest drug bust in Kings County history.

Allison later pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine for sale. Because of AB 109, Allison was not eligible for a prison sentence, Strickland said. So instead of spending 28 years behind bars, Allison was sentenced to a relatively light five years in the county jail "because of a concern about space in the jail," Strickland said.

Vidak said his legislation can't fix all the problems with AB 109, but it will send a message: "If you commit a major crime, you will do the time in prison."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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