California will release prisoners early and curb the number of parolees returned to custody, dropping the prison population by 15,000 in the next year and a half. The Sacramento Bee says the changes are driven by budget-cutting measures that could lead to units or entire facilities being closed. The decrease would near 10 percent, a significant reversal from years of steadily increasing numbers in the overcrowded prison system.
The Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis approved a budget that called for releasing prisoners a few months early to supervised drug treatment, expanding opportunities for inmates to earn time credit for good behavior, and limiting the number of parolees returned to institutions. The changes are expected to save the state $125 million this fiscal year.
The 15,000 figure “seems like a very high number, a very concerning number,” said Assemblyman Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, who will examine the Department of Corrections’ plans. “It’s certainly not my priority to let prisoners out early,” he said.
A new report from the state’s Little Hoover Commission declares the corrections system a “$5.2-billion-a-year failure that does little to prepare inmates for freedom and returns two out of three ex-convicts to prison before they complete parole,” the Los Angeles Times says.
The agency concluded that by not educating and training most inmates for jobs, the state operates a “revolving door” system that all but assures parolees will resume committing crimes.
Politicians have balked at reforms that could be perceived as soft on criminals. Commissioners cast their recommendations as ways to improve safety and save money.
Each year, 125,000 inmates are released from California’s 33 prisons. They are given $200 and placed on parole for three years, supervised by an agent who typically oversees about 80 ex-convicts. While in prison, only about one-quarter of inmates have access to educational or vocational training programs.
The commission focused on California’s response to parole violators. Often, a parolee who violates the conditions of his release is returned to prison, “an expensive and temporary solution to a long-term problem,” the report said.
The panel said a better approach would be intermediate sanctions popular in other states, such as house arrest, electronic monitoring, substance abuse treatment, or incarceration at a halfway house.
Jerry Brown of Oakland, mayor of a city where one of every 14 adult males is on parole or probation, called the correctional system an “abysmal failure.” Brown said he would personally ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, who takes office Monday as governor, to “bring some sanity to all of this…. It needs to be at the top of his agenda, right after solving the budget crisis.”