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Special Report: Jail Early Release Problem

Eyewitness News shows the staggering number of people released early from the Fresno County Jail and the people impacted by the problem.
In a special report, Eyewitness News investigates the problem of early release from the Fresno County Jail.  Every day, dozens of convicted and suspected criminals walk out of the jail doors because the jail is at capacity.  

CBS47's Rachel Azevedo gathered the list of about 750 people who've been released early in the last 15 days.  There are at least seven people who've been through the jail two and three times in just the last two weeks. 

Outside the Fresno County Jail, our camera startles inmates who've been released early.  Trying to avoid being recorded, they double back inside, but eventually head to waiting cars on the curb, or the streets of Downtown Fresno.  According to inmate release records online, about 50 people are let out of the jail doors daily because the jail is at capacity.  Sheriff Margaret Mims says the main reason comes down to money.

"When we built our current jails we predicted we would run out of beds in 2007, and that's exactly what happened.  However that's also when the economy started getting very bad," said Mims. 

The economy, coupled with AB109, or prison realignment, has the jail so full, it reaches capacity every single day.  Current jail facilities hold 3,291 inmates.  688 are realigned prisoners.  About 70% of the jail population has not been convicted of a crime yet.  Low level offenders are the first to be released, but Mims says the "risk to re-offend" is also considered.  Still, some people manage to slip through the system over and over.  32-year-old Sarah Magnolia was arrested and released from jail nearly 40 times in one year alone.

"She's been our number one issue or problem in our district for the last year," said Sgt. Greg Noll, of Fresno Police's Southwest District.

Noll says Magnolia steals things from unlocked cars and occasionally steals cars.  One of the places she comes to all the time is a parking lot on Belmont and Broadway.  The problem is so bad, posters with Magnolia's mug shot are taped throughout the adjacent apartment complex. 

Eyewitness News found surveillance video showing Magnolia in action.  She saunters into the parking lot, finds a window cracked, opens doors and casually walks off with bags full of someone's stuff.

"I was just mad!  I was just really really mad and frustrated," said Rebecca Cisneros, one of Magnolia's alleged victims.

Cisneros says her purse and bags of groceries were stolen after she accidentally left a window cracked in the parking lot.  Her son suspected it was Magnolia, so they got in the car and went looking for her.  The found Magnolia several blocks away, but never found the purse.  Weeks later, Magnolia was arrested on over a dozen outstanding warrants, but she was released from jail within a few hours. 

After we exposed Magnolia's situation, the Fresno County Jail apparently found room to keep her for an extended stay.  She's been locked up for a month and a half, and police say the rate of vehicle burglaries in Downtown Fresno has improved. 

Meanwhile, other alleged repeat offenders are still on the loose.  In September, 34-year-old Erik Macias was named one of Fresno's 5 Most Prolific Car Thieves.  He was arrested September 17th on warrants totaling more than a million dollars.  He was released from jail just six hours later.

Eyewitness News dug up court records showing Macias has four active felony cases, including gun violations.  He's been in and out of jail at least five times in the last year, never staying longer than one day.

"We have to correct this problem," said Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea.

Recently, Perea helped work out a solution with the police chief and sheriff to keep five jail beds exempt from the early release policy.  Fresno Police pay the bill, and get to decide which suspects stay locked up.

"When they capture these prolific car thieves, or anybody else they think needs to be in those beds to keep the people of Fresno safe, they will be in those beds.  So, I think it's a win win," said Perea.

The county is also working with the state to bring two more judges to the Fresno County courthouse.  They'd help get suspects arraigned quickly and reduce the high percentage of pre-trial suspects in jail.

Fresno County applied for an $80 million state grant to build a new jail facility.  The so-called North Annex Jail would replace the 70-year-old South Annex Jail.  If the county gets the grant, construction may be complete as early as 2019.  The new annex would hold 200 fewer inmates that the current facility, but there's an option to add floors if the money exists.

As for Magnolia, on Monday, she was still in jail awaiting trial.  Her next court date is November 22nd for a mental health hearing.  Macias is currently out of custody.
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