As many as 33,000 California inmates may have served too long behind bars because they were not given all the time off they earned for good behavior and for working in prison. Records obtained by the Los Angeles Times show that in August, the state sampled some inmate cases and discovered that in more than half — 354 of 679 — offenders were set to remain in prison a combined 104 years too long. Fifty-nine of those prisoners had already overstayed and were released after serving a total of 20 years too many, an average of four months each.
The errors could cost the state $44 million through the end of this fiscal year if not corrected and more than $80 million through mid-2010. California’s overburdened prison agency waited more than two years to change its method of awarding credit for good behavior after three court rulings, one as early as May 2005, found it illegal. Officials were giving some inmates 15 percent good behavior time instead of the 50 percent to which they were entitled. The state fixed release dates for only those inmates who requested it. State Sen. Gloria Romero, who chairs the public safety committee, said inmates have a fundamental right to a timely release. She criticized the prison agency’s “arrogance in the face of the law to simply say that these people’s lives don’t matter, but they can just lock them away and essentially throw away the key.”