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Governor’s inmate reduction program: How will it work?

By Randall Benton / [email protected] Sacramento Bee
To help balance the state budget, a plan is in place to reduce inmate populations at state facilities such as San Quentin.

Capitol and California – State Politics
Governor’s inmate reduction program: How will it work?
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Buzz up!By Sam Stanton
[email protected]
Published: Monday, Aug. 3, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 3, 2009 – 11:58 am
As police officers and deputies are being laid off across California, the idea is almost breathtaking: Reduce California’s prison population by 27,300 inmates, partly by letting some out of the gates.

The plan, part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s piecemeal effort to balance the budget, is designed to trim corrections spending by $1.2 billion.

But it has rattled the nerves of local law enforcement leaders and crime victim advocates who say the loss of front-line officers has made communities vulnerable. They wonder how the state will keep its vow to release only low-risk offenders and keep tabs on them.

“Let’s hope they get it right, shall we?” said Marc Klaas, who became one of California’s most prominent crime victims in 1993 when his 12-year-old daughter Polly was abducted and murdered by a convicted kidnapper and robber who was out on parole.

State officials say they will tread carefully. Those released, they say, will be low-risk offenders who have been evaluated to determine whether they can be released safely with GPS monitoring.

Corrections officials said they do not consider the plan to be an “early release” program, because most of the reductions to the inmate population would come through other methods: Nonviolent offenders who violate parole would not automatically be returned to prison; inmates who are not U.S. citizens could be turned over to federal authorities for deportation; and some offenders would remain in county jail rather than end up in state prison.

“I don’t think people should be concerned about us opening up the gates and letting the inmates go, because that’s not the plan,” said Matthew Cate, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But when word of the plan emerged during budget negotiations last month, one Republican labeled it “radioactive,” and legislators are expected to begin tackling the issue immediately upon their return from recess on Aug. 17.

“There are portions of the plan the speaker believes should be examined when the Legislature returns in August, including the establishment of a sentence reform commission,” Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, said in a statement. “With recidivism rates at an all-time high, Speaker Bass wants to be smart on crime – not soft on crime.

“Corrections has had a five-fold increase in its budget since 1994. That’s untenable, especially in this economy. The savings that will be pursued moving forward have to be considered with maintaining public safety as the top priority.”

Settling the issue is critical. Without an agreement, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration will not realize the monthly savings of $100 million expected from the prison population reduction, and cuts will have to be made elsewhere, Cate noted.

Local law enforcement officials say they are concerned, but realistic.

“The bottom line is, public safety is going to be impacted,” Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said. “It would be foolish to believe otherwise.”

The sheriff questions how corrections officials plan to limit releases to nonviolent, low-risk offenders.

“This misnomer of nonviolent, nonserious offenders being released from prison – there are just not a lot of those in prison,” he said. “To have them released into the community is not going to work.”

However, McGinness and other law enforcement leaders say they understand that changes have to be made because the state’s prisons are overcrowded and the state must move before a federal court takes its own actions to reduce inmate populations.

“You have to do something,” Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto said. “I don’t have the slightest idea, in all honesty, how we’re going to combat this issue.”

The governor’s plan would cut the state’s prison population of 167,700 inmates by roughly 27,300 over the next fiscal year. In the main, the proposal relies on various maneuvers and reclassifications to get those numbers down.

For instance, 8,500 felons who are not citizens could have their sentences commuted by the governor, then be turned over to federal authorities for deportation. The administration says only inmates who have not committed a violent or sex-related offense and who have no more than one felony conviction would be considered.

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Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.

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