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 that they're releasing dozens of inmates each week despite hundreds of empty beds. There are also concerns about who they're releasing and the ripple effect on public safety - and taxpayers.
Whistleblowers and other critics acknowledge that the jailers have a difficult job and deciding who to release can sometimes be an impossible task. But they point to hundreds of empty beds and shortcomings in the department's policy that determines which inmates they release.
- Jail records indicate that the Placer County Sheriff's Department is releasing dozens of inmates a week despite hundreds of empty beds.
- The department cites a federal order that authorizes the sheriff to release inmates when jail capacity hits 90%.
- Whistleblowers point to two unused jail pods, with 100 total beds, that have been sitting empty for over a year.
- The department now says it's actively working to staff those jail pods to begin using 100 empty beds.
- Meanwhile, they have released more than 100 so-called "no-bail inmates" in the first 5 months of the year -- suspects who a judge deemed too risky to allow to post bail while they await trial.
- There are also questions about why certain inmates are being released despite serious red flags.
- At least two recently-released inmates are accused of committing violent attacks shortly after they were released.
Nightmare on the Christmas Street
It's known as the Christmas Street — a storybook neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and well over 100 families participate in an annual holiday light show.
It's tucked away in Rocklin, CA, which is ranked the second-safest city 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 injuries, 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.
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%.
Many assert that the federal consent decree doesn't actually apply to the Roseville Jail, which was built years after the ruling. The judge's order specifically names the jails that were in use at the time.
However, the Sheriff's Department tells CBS13 that its legal counsel believes the order applies to all future jails as well.
Either way, "it's not a 'must release.' It's a 'may release' starting at 90% capacity," stressed one whistleblower.
CBS13 reviewed months of Placer County jail capacity records, and week after week, dozens of inmates are being released despite hundreds of empty beds. Instead of running at 90% capacity, records indicate they've been running closer to 60-70% overall capacity between their two jail facilities.
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 that 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.
Powers also noted that many of their inmates are there due to the 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.
Whistleblowers and other critics acknowledge that the department is in a tough spot and recognize that deciding who to release can sometimes be an impossible task.
But they point to the hundreds of empty beds and, what they call, shortcomings in the department's policy that determines who they release.
Releasing Inmates with Violent Histories
CBS13 asked Resendes what he would say to victims like McDonald, who wants to know why the suspect in his attack, McClung, was released again after his fourth arrest this year.
Lt. Resendes: Our hearts go out to the McDonald family for what happened to him. We have no way of knowing what people are going to do once they're released from custody. And we can't possibly keep everybody in jail.
Watts: But repeat offenders, people who keep coming back to you week after week?
Lt. Resendes: "Let's talk about why he came back week after week, he had some pretty minor crimes."
Bradly McClung is now facing a litany of charges, including for premeditated attempted murder of Mr. McDonald, after being released from jail 4 times this year
for a series of escalating charges related to trespassing, vandalism, and drugs.
But he previously served prison time for convictions related to an unprovoked attack on a Walmart employee in a bathroom and attacking his pregnant girlfriend, and he also had prior serious convictions related to burglary.
"There's no excuse for releasing people that have a violent criminal history," a whistleblower said, pointing to the sheriff's policy that is used to decide which inmates to release. It states there must be "No Assaultive Convictions in the last 5 years/pattern of assaultive behavior."
McClung's convictions were 10 years old.
Watts: Is there nothing in your classification manual that says, maybe we shouldn't release a guy who's a flight risk, who has a history of violence, and who has been released four times in five months?
Lt. Resendes: At the end of the day, we have to look at their current charges. We can't predict what they're going to do when they get out.
Watts: When somebody comes back to you four times in five months, you can predict they're probably going to come back again.
Lynch had been released twice in roughly two months following arrests related to vehicle thefts.
But Records reviewed by CBS13 reveal Lynch had been flagged in more than a half dozen so-called End of Watch (EOW) reports, which are distributed widely throughout the Sheriff's Department at the end of each shift.
"We don't search those people's names in our End of Watch reports (before releasing them)," a whistleblower said.
Lynch wasn't arrested, but according to the EOW, his family reported to the Sheriff's Department that he stabbed the family dog twice in the neck last year. The next day, a report notes he allegedly threatened to blow someone's head off with a .45. A day after that, officers notified a nearby school that Lynch might pose a threat.
Other reports note Lynch had recently been released from a "mental hospital", had "violent tendencies", and warned deputies that Lynch carried a large "sheathed knife" at all times.
Then, just days before the alleged murder of his mother and her long-time boyfriend, a gun store owner warned the Sheriff's Department that Lynch illegally attempted to buy a gun.
Impact on the Courts and Taxpayers
"How do these repeat offenders, who keep showing up in court, impact the courts and by extension, the taxpayers?" Watts asked Jake Chatters, the spokesperson for the Placer County Superior Court.
"Each one of those adds another court appearance, another set of warrants, and all of that is more work and more time," Chatters said.
Public safety aside, from public defenders to the district attorneys, to juries and other court costs, each case comes at an additional cost to taxpayers.
There's also the issue of supervision.
"If they're released from jail under the Federal Consent Decree, they're released unsupervised, right?" Watts asked
"That's my understanding," Chatters said.
Instead of sending someone back to jail where they've already been released unsupervised, in some cases, a judge may order supervised release of a suspect while they await trial. At least, under supervised release, they can be tracked through an ankle monitor or a probation officer.
Instead of being sent back to jail where he'd already been released twice, Lynch was out on supervised release when he allegedly killed his mother and her boyfriend.
Watts: "Can you see how your policy… ties the hands of judges?"
Lt. Resendes: "It's hard to say that that's the case for every single release."
Watts: "But you acknowledge that..."
Lt. Resendes "It is a challenge and our entire system is full of challenges."
Releasing No Bail Inmates
According to data provided by the Placer County Sheriff's Department in response to a Public Records Act Request, the Placer County Sheriff released more than 100 inmates in the first five months of the year, who were ineligible for bail by court order.
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.
Records indicate that the sheriff released at least 103 no-bail inmates between January 1 and May 23rd. That includes at least 47 so-called "no pickup" inmates who Placer County chose not to pick up and bring into their jails. That's in addition to at least 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:
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 current 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.
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State Funding for New Beds
One whistleblower alleged that the department was purposely keeping those 100 jail beds empty in an attempt to hide them from the state out of fear they may lose state funding for new beds.
Placer County was granted nearly $40 million in state funding to build new mental health and vocational facilities for inmates, which would add more than 150 additional beds.
The funding was granted under two senate bills, SB 863 and SB 844, which gave preference to counties that planned to reduce the number of overall jail beds and stated that others could "(realize) only a minimal increase in capacity."
When Placer County applied for the funds in 2015 and 2017, the applications committed to reducing the overall number of jail beds in exchange for the funding. But instead of decommissioning the 100+ beds that were cited in the application, they renovated them.
The Sheriff's Department insists the SB funding had nothing to do with keeping the jail pods closed. They cite staffing shortages as the primary reason for not filling the 100 empty jail beds.
Sources inside the state agency responsible for distributing the funds tell CBS13 that it is unlikely that the additional beds would impact their funding either way.
While many note that the ideal solution would be to build more single-bed jail cells, that appears unlikely in the near future. But whistleblowers point to several short-term solutions.
We shared various whistleblower suggestions with the Sheriff's Department, ranging from relocating staff to open up the 100 unused beds, to relocating low-level inmates to make room in other high-capacity classifications.
Whistleblowers say these options could make space where needed and ultimately keep more inmates - like McClung and Lynch - off the streets while they await trial.
"My biggest question is 'why didn't they do it over a year ago?'" one whistleblower asked.
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.
"If we can open up those beds and increase jail capacity, then that's a win," one whistleblower said, adding that is the reason he decided to speak out in the first place.
The completion date for the new mental health and vocational facilities, with more than 150 additional beds, is still pending. Due to COVID, the project was delayed and they've asked the county for additional funding to complete the project.
However, the project does appear to be moving forward. Many believe those beds will further help to alleviate the capacity burden.
Lessons from the Nightmare on Christmas Street
Mr. McDonald, a retired Sheriff's Deputy himself, is still struggling with injuries nearly a month after his attack.
He's hoping the department has learned from the nightmare on the Christmas street and will start looking beyond just recent violent offenses before releasing inmates with lengthy violent histories, like McClung, unsupervised into the community.
"Every single person coming out of there needs a full-on evaluation," said McDonald.
Meanwhile, both McClung and Lynch are now awaiting trial -- behind bars.
NOTE: This story was initially broadcast in multiple parts, on June 3rd and June 6th. The online story was updated on June 7th.
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