What would local newspapers do if it became known that a convicted prisoner was released early from jail and just hours later was arrested again, this time for attempted rape?

What would they do if the release was the result of a new state law allowing such criminals be released early because the state is strapped for money and this would supposedly help balance the budget?

What if the release was only for “non-violent” prisoners, but officials ignored that a prior sentence involved violence?

What if this occurred in the county of the state capital?

When would newspapers print the story? Where would they place it? How would they present it?

I would expect front-page coverage. But, silly me for thinking that when there’s a shocking local, county or state news event, the major area newspapers would jump on the story and cover it.

No, not just “cover it” but put it on the front page – if not in the main headline, at least below the fold.

It would let citizens know that something important had happened that they need to know about.

It also lets them know that those running the papers have a sense of what news events deserve attention. Citizens need to know that news placement relates to the importance of the story.

First things first; front-page news, rather than being buried deep within the paper or perhaps not printed at all.

Silly me. I forgot. I live in California; it’s different here. To make it worse, I work in Northern California in San Francisco, and that means, like it or not, things truly are different.

What I described happened last week in Sacramento County, barely a hundred miles from San Francisco.

The city of Sacramento is the state capital where the Legislature passed and the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill last year that was part of a budget deficit deal. The idea was to save money by releasing some 6,500 prisoners by next year from an overcrowded system.

The intent was to give early release to “non-violent” prisoners who had exhibited good behavior and earned extra credit for participating in educational and other programs.

The law went into effect Jan. 25, but there are problems. Counties are interpreting the law differently in terms of just who is eligible and when. Is the law retroactive, or does it just apply to those sentenced as of the January date? How are the prisoners evaluated for release?

The law isn’t specific, and with 58 counties involved, it appears there’s widespread confusion and problems.

It’s not helped by what happened last week.

Kevin Eugene Peterson was released from jail Monday evening, 16 days early, and by noon the next day was back in police custody accused of the attempted rape of a counselor. In fact, he’s charged with attempted rape, sexual battery, false imprisonment and violating the terms of his probation.

Not bad for half a day of freedom for a supposedly “non-violent” offender.

Actually, Peterson was “non-violent” by a technicality. His current jailing was for probation violation, non-violent. What was ignored was that the original crime was assault with a deadly weapon; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in jail plus five years probation. He violated that last December and was returned to jail for four months. Apparently, officials just looked at the probation violation.

Christine Ward of Crime Victims Action Alliance, which opposed the new law, told the Sacramento Bee. “Our greatest fear has occurred almost immediately after the early release of these inmates.”

The Sacramento Bee reported the story, but in San Francisco, I had to learn about it from a Los Angeles radio program on Thursday. The two local newspapers I read daily didn’t report it until Friday.

The San Francisco Chronicle astonished me. They had the generic story on page C-11, focusing on how varied counties are handling the releases. What was most shocking was the casual, blasé reporting of the incident. The paper devoted just five lines to details of the Peterson crime.

What was their big front-page story? Complete with a 4×7-inch color picture, it told of the efforts of a local couple to have fundraisers to help pay for their in-vitro fertility procedures.

How’s that for “news”?!

The Contra Costa Times on Friday put the story on page 9 along the fold and on Saturday wrote about the prisoner releases in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

Statewide, hundreds of prisoners are being released even as anger grows about the Peterson crimes.

So far, not a word from Attorney General Jerry Brown or Gov. Schwarzenegger. Prison officials are saying as little as possible, no doubt hoping the uproar will die down.

Negative reaction isn’t helped by the comment of Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness. He said the law was followed and that the 16-day early release probably didn’t make a difference in what Peterson did.

“What he is alleged to have done yesterday, he conceivably would have done 16 days later.”

Thanks for your concern for innocent citizens, Sheriff.

Kevin Mickelson, president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff’s Association was more blunt.

He told the Bee: “The state Legislature has duped the citizens of California into believing they’ve released only nonviolent offenders back into the communities. That is simply not true.”

Will the law be repealed? What about the hundreds of prisoners released daily? Are citizens in danger?

Oh, that’s right – it’s all about money.

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