Battle over Fresno Co. Jail releases back to start

FRESNO, Calif.

The whole legal mess started when Sheriff Mims sued the Board of Supervisors after they tried to stop layoffs at the jail. The sheriff says she legally controls the details of her own budget, but supervisors say if she's letting inmates out of jail, they need to step in and make changes.

When pink slips greeted correctional officers at the jail two years ago, county supervisors could read the tea leaves. Sheriff Mims was responding to budget troubles by closing parts of the jail. When supervisors tried to rescind the layoffs and save jobs at the jail, she sued them.

Mims says the supervisors can decide what her budget is, and how many employees she can have, but it's her decision what those employees should do. Her attorney compares it to the supervisors trying to control staffing at a county hospital.

"The difference of opinion is they say 'We don't want you to have that many surgeons. We don't want you to have that many ER nurses' as opposed to 'we don't have that much money for employees," said Martin Mayer.

ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi says as an elected official the sheriff does have more control, so even if supervisors allocate specific funding to open the entire jail, she could use it for something else. "Once it goes into the sheriff's budget, I think as an elected official it's her duty to run that department as she deems fit," he said.

The sheriff won round one of the court battle and the layoffs stuck. She's now closed three floors of the jail, leaving more than 1300 empty beds. Her lawsuit moved forward Friday.

Supervisors are hoping the judge will allow them more input in the sheriff's staffing decisions. "I think it's proven to be irresponsible because the net result in Fresno County over the last year, year-and-a-half, is we've had thousands of prisoners released out of that jail," said Supervisor Henry Perea.

In fact, an Action News investigation revealed those releases include suspects facing third strikes and possible life sentences, as well as violent suspects like Erven Aguayo, who was charged with stabbing another man. Judge Mark Snauffer said he'll decide in about a week whether the sheriff's lawsuit should go forward.

The county is paying for lawyers on both sides, at a cost of nearly $500,000 already.

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