With a new state law encouraging early release of prisoners followed quickly by a series of court orders, not much is clear.

Except this — California’s county jails hold a bunch of confused inmates, unsure of when they will go free.

A new parole and prison reform law took effect Jan. 25 with an expansion of early release credits for inmates not classified as “violent” or “serious.” The intent was to comply with a federal court order to alleviate California’s prison crowding.

Whether the new state law applies to county lockup inmates as well as state corrections inmates is the subject of a couple of contradictory court orders and intensive bill drafting in Sacramento.

On Feb. 10, a judge issued a temporary restraining order telling Sacramento County to cease applying the new rules to county jail inmates. That would stop the release of inmates benefiting from accelerated reductions in sentences because of good behavior.

Did that make it clear how sheriffs should apply the law?

“This is not even close to being over,” said Clay Parker, sheriff of Tehama County and president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association. “We’re telling them (sheriffs) what we were telling them before. You need to take the advice of your (county) counsel.”

Meanwhile, Parker said in mid-February, state legislative leaders were busy  drafting an amendment that would clarify the intent of the law to apply only to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmates — not the cell dwellers in county lockups.

That intent was clear to the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association, which sued in early February to stop the early release of county jail inmates. See here.

The issue had inflamed public opinion in Sacramento County after one inmate was released early and allegedly committed a rape within 24 hours of his release.

On Feb. 10, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster granted a TRO (temporary restraining order), indicating the deputy sheriffs association just might win its suit on its merits.

Some 200 Sacramento County inmates, who were released on the accelerated schedule in the interim period before the TRO, essentially took advantage of “Get-out-of-jail-free cards,” said Deputy Sheriffs Association President Kevin Mickelson.

During the interim period before the TRO, the county closed one high-security unit with the jail’s inmate population down, Mickelson said. That unit reopened when the TRO was issued Feb. 10.

“This was bad legislation, simply put. Let’s just stop and clean it up,” said Mickelson. “The court recognized the incredible risk the government is placing on public safety by gutting law enforcement services while at the same time releasing inmates early.”

The court recognized it, and then un-recognized it on Feb. 16. McMaster issued a new order saying he had no legal recourse but to grant inmates a right to be heard on the matter. The new order led the Sacramento sheriff to make plans to resume releasing jail inmates with good-behavior credits.

It’s unclear how the court drama in Sacramento County will translate in other counties.

Since the law took effect Jan. 25, it appears an equal number of counties interpreted it retroactively and prospectively. Retroactively means calculating inmates’ credits for good behavior and time served in the weeks and months before Jan. 25. Prospectively means the new calculation of credits starts with those who began sentences Jan. 25 and thereafter.

The latter interpretation was adopted by many counties, including Tehama and Santa Clara. In the former example (including Sacramento and San Bernardino counties), the implementation meant a ripple in the number of inmates re-entering the community in late January and early February.

The new law authorizes a reduction of up to 50 percent of a sentence, compared to 33 percent by the old rules.

From Jan. 25 to Feb. 10, San Bernardino County released about 650 inmates, including some tracked by electronic monitors, said Cindy Beavers, a sheriff’s department spokeswoman.

The calculations of time served were reviewed by corrections personnel and then a supervisor. “Each inmate’s file is being checked,” Beavers said.

The bump in released inmates “is not going to strain us any more than our caseloads are already strained,” said Rick Arden, deputy chief of probation for San Bernardino County. “There was a one-time backlog of people with Jan. 25, a big glut of people getting orientation assessments.”

Both Arden and Parker, president of the state sheriffs association, are waiting for the other shoe to drop — changes in parole procedures that will kick in this spring and make it harder for law enforcers to monitor a percentage of prison parolees, they said.

The law authorizes giving certain classes of nonviolent parolees “non-revocable parole,” in which they get a risk assessment as they leave prison. If they score low on that assessment, they fill out a form stating where they will live, with no need for verification or regular contact with a parole officer. This will make it harder for deputies to track these known offenders and execute search warrants, Parker said.

A team of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staffers is working on procedures for implementing the parole changes for a rollout in the spring, when the mean streets will get a little more crowded with new inmates released into non-revocable parole.

The idea is to prioritize supervision, with parole officers getting smaller caseloads because of the pruning of “low-risk,” non-revocable parolees. The new law authorizes the hiring of new parole supervisors and incentives for parolee success through the completion of rehabilitation programs in education and vocational training.

Lance Howland can be reached at lancehowland@aol.com