PLACER COUNTY, CA (CBS13) — A recent home invasion in Placer County is just the latest example of recently-released inmates accused of committing violent crimes when they were supposed to have been behind bars.
The Placer County Sheriff's Department says there is no room in the jails to keep the inmates, but jail records indicate they're releasing dozens of inmates each week despite hundreds of empty beds.
Why? And what can be done to keep violent suspects off the street? CBS13 is Getting Answers.
Nightmare on the Christmas Street
It's known as the Christmas Street — a storybook neighborhood tucked away in Rocklin, CA where everyone knows everyone and well over 100 families participate in an annual holiday light show.
Rocklin is ranked the second-safest city in terms of violent crime in Placer County, according to the most recent FBI Violent Crime Data. Placer County itself is ranked among the safest counties in the state.
But as the weather turned warm, Christmas Street became the scene of a violent neighborhood nightmare.
"I've always considered this a sanctuary," said Steven McDonald, who was attacked in his home by a stranger. "It's just monumental that something like this could happen here."
McDonald said he was jolted out of bed on an early May morning by someone trying to break through his doggie door with his patio chair.
"I thought, well, he's going to break through the glass," he said.
After yelling down to the stranger in his backyard, the former Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy said he went out front to investigate. He saw the suspect take off running down the street and went back inside to call 911.
That's when McDonald says the suspect bolted through his front door, hit him from behind, pinned him down, and beat him for what felt like an eternity.
"He was just sitting there pounding on the sides of my head," McDonald said. "He went on and on about how he was going to kill me (and said) that he was a messenger from God."
The suspect, Bradly McClung, is now facing a litany of charges including premeditated attempted murder.
"I was fighting for my life," said McDonald who is still recovering, nearly a month later.
Adding insult to McDonald's injury, McClung had just been released from a Placer County jail, for the fourth time in five months, without posting the court-ordered bail.
"It staggers the mind to think that anyone near that capacity is even qualified for a release of any sort," McDonald said.
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The Federal Consent Decree
Whistleblowers inside the Placer County Sheriff's Department point to what they call an unnecessary catch-and-release policy in Placer County.
"It's a failure of our sheriff's policy and we need to fix it," said a whistleblower.
But the sheriff's department tells CBS13 that they must release inmates under the Federal Consent Decree, a 1993 judge's order that says "the Sheriff of Placer County is authorized to release or refuse to accept inmates" when jail capacity hits 90%.
"It's not a 'must release.' It's a 'may release' starting at 90% capacity," explained a whistleblower.
But CBS13 reviewed months of jail capacity records, and week after week, dozens of inmates are being released despite hundreds of empty beds. Records indicate they've been running closer to 60-70% capacity.
CBS13 sat down with representatives from the Sheriff's Department to discuss the findings:
Julie Watts, CBS13 Investigative Reporter: "The jail is well below 90% overall capacity, yet you're releasing dozens of inmates a week,"
Lt. Resendes, Placer County Sheriff Department: "Because we don't consider overall capacity."
Lt. Resendes explained that the jail has several classifications of inmates and their interpretation of the order allows them to release inmates when any one of those classifications is at 90% capacity. That may be COVID-19 isolation pods where inmates spend their first seven days, or it may be space in the cells they'll be sent to after, classified by security level, crimes, gang afflation and other factors.
Roseville Jail Captain David Powers explained some inmates can't be housed with anyone else, and because they're in two-bed cells, the second bed remains empty.
"There are 47 inmates currently that cannot be housed with anyone else," Powers said. That leaves 47 unusable beds — one in each cell.
But weekly population reports reveal that hundreds of beds remain empty week after week.
Powers also noted that many of their inmates are there due to a criminal justice reform measure, AB109, that moved less serious felons from state prison to county jail.
"Sixty percent of our population should be an inmate in state prison," Powers said.
"Sometimes we have to release the best of the worse to make room for the new one," Lt. Resendes added.
Releasing No Bail Inmates
That includes more than 100 inmates, ineligible for bail by court order, who were released into the community anyway since January alone.
These are suspects who a judge deemed too risky to allow to post bail while they await a hearing. In some cases, they may be considered a flight risk, in others, they may be a risk to the community.
According to records provided by the Placer County Sheriff's Department in response to a Public Records Act Request, they released 103 no-bail inmates between January 1 and May 23rd. That includes 47 so-called "no pickup" inmates who Placer County chose not to pick up and bring into their jails. That's in addition to 56 no-bail inmates who were allowed to simply walk out of Placer County jails unsupervised.
"When a no-bail is released from custody, that creates a significant concern for the court," said Jake Chatters with Placer County Superior Court.
He added, "a no-bail hold by a judge, after evaluating all the circumstances, is the least restrictive option in their opinion for public safety. So it would be our hope that they're being held by the Sheriff's Office."
CBS13 asked the Sheriff's Department about the issue:
Julie Watts, CBS13 Investigative Reporter: "So are you saying that the judge's order... doesn't matter?"
Lt. Resendes, Placer County Sheriff Department: "I'm in no way saying that the judge's opinion or the DA's opinion on no bail doesn't matter," Resendes said.
Watts: "Well, in 56 cases so far this year, it didn't matter."
Lt. Resendes: Well, because 56 times we were faced with the decision of who to release versus who to keep."
Watts: "But you do have available beds."
100 Unused Jail Beds
Whistleblowers point to two empty dormitories known as L & M pods with 100 total unused beds. That's roughly the same number of no-bail inmates they've released so far this year.
"We've had those beds available for over a year and they've remained empty," a whistleblower said. "It's a choice to not open them."
Whistleblowers say they could move lower-risk inmates to these recently renovated pods to make more space in other classification pods.
Watts: "Why not open up L & M so the McClungs of the world don't have to be released back out into the public?"
Lt. Resendes: "The very short answer to that is we currently don't have the staffing to run those."
He says people are retiring faster than they can hire and points to COVID-19 complications keeping the pods closed.
But whistleblowers note that they've had over a year to hire the five people needed to open the pods, one person per shift, and they give examples of how staff could be moved around to re-open the pods.
"We have the ability to do it. We've chosen to not do it," a whistleblower said.
Watts: "We've been hearing a lot of excuses but not a lot of solutions. Can you assure us that, moving forward, there is a solution that's in the works?"
Lt. Resendes: "It's safe to say that there is a plan in place to get them opened in the near future.
"My biggest question is 'why didn't they do it over a year ago?'" a whistleblower said in response.
Mr. McDonald is still struggling with injuries, now, nearly a month after his attack.
He wants to know why they're releasing inmates with violent histories unsupervised into the community, and if they're making changes following the nightmare on Christmas street.
"Every single person coming out of there needs a full-on evaluation," said Mcdonald.
Nightmare On The Christmas Street: PART 2
The concerns go beyond releasing inmates against judges' orders when there are hundreds of unused jail beds.
Monday night at 10 on CBS13, we're digging deeper into the ripple effect of the Sheriff's current policy, the impact on taxpayers, and why some inmates are being released despite serious red flags.
for more features.