A proposal by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to move wobblers – criminals convicted of crimes that could be classified as either a felony or a misdemeanor – to county jails could steal another $100 million from local governments according to California State Association of Counties estimates.

“Shifting responsibility for housing criminals to the counties is untenable and unworkable,” says Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“There is no room at the inn,” Whitmore says.

According to Whitmore’s estimates, a proposed bill would change the penal code to classify fraud, grand theft and some drug possession offenses as misdemeanors so that convicts could serve sentences locally would mean another 4,000 to 5,000 inmates for Los Angeles’ seven jails, which are already overcrowded to the point that a court has ordered population reductions.

“We would have to start releasing prisoners,” Whitmore says.

Los Angeles is not alone.

At the other end of the state, Siskiyou County Sheriff Captain Jim Betts is trying to make the most of his 107 bed-capacity by expanding home incarceration and work programs.

“We are trying to think ahead, but there is no room to expand,” Betts says.

A total of 20 counties are under court order to comply with maximum population caps after a rash of prisoner and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuits. Other counties have instituted self-imposed caps to avoid similar litigation.

As Whitmore says, the result has been early releases.

The California State Sheriffs’ Association estimates 139,000 sentenced prisoners were released from county jails prior to serving their complete sentenced time in 2005.

The state also faces overcrowding and possible forced releases at its 33 prisons. The state houses 171,000 inmates at an average cost of $49,000 per inmate per year, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2008 report.

The governor’s proposal could move an estimated 23,000 future prisoners from state prisons to local custody in 116 local facilities and could save the state $99.9 million in 2010 and millions more in future years.

The governor also proposes to shift the responsibility for 19,000 illegal immigrants from the state to the federal government for deportation. This could save $182.1 million according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Releasing some inmates one year early from prison and placing them on house arrest with Global Positioning System monitoring could save $120.5 million.

Another $787 million in savings could come from eliminating rehabilitation services.

“The state should not balance the budget on the back of LA County,” Whitmore says.

The Sheriffs’ Association is not the only one opposing the proposal.

The ACLU, Chief Probation Officers of California and Los Angeles Police Protective League have all spoken out against the plan.

JT Long can be reached at jtlongandco@gmail.com