California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering money-saving changes in sentencing and parole supervision for California’s $5.3 billion prison system, the nation’s largest, reports the Associated Press.
Shorter sentences and speedier release programs already were being implemented or were part of a lawsuit settlement over California’s parole system. Administration officials said Schwarzenegger has asked them to consider further steps. The state faces a budget deficit that could grow to between $12 billion to $24 billion by the middle of 2005 if current spending and revenues don’t change.
The changes would reverse years of a get-tough policy on criminals under California’s last three governors, and could face opposition from Republican lawmakers who make up a minority in the state legislature.
A top Schwarzenegger aide, in a briefing with reporters, said the new Republican governor is at the “very, very preliminary” stage of considering whether to ask lawmakers to shorten sentences for lesser crimes and increase reliance on alternative punishments. Schwarzenegger asked Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Roderick Hickman to consider if changes can be made without jeopardizing public safety, said the aide. Schwarzenegger wants to look at how expensive and bureaucratic the system has become.
“We’re doing our homework. These are all ideas that are interesting, but they have to be (investigated) before a policy decision is made,” Tip Kindel, spokesman for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, told the Sacramento Bee. “But from what I understand, there is a willingness to look at and consider them.” Kindel said corrections officials project as many as 25,000 of the state’s 161,000 inmates could be safely released, but he cautioned: “The vast majority of our inmates are in there for serious crimes. Those are not being looked at (for early release) at all.” The Bee reported internal memos showing the administration is considering abolishing parole for nonviolent inmates. The move would save $231 million a year by 2005-06.
One issue in question, says the Los Angeles Times, is the future of private prisons, which have been resisted from the powerful prison guards union. Schwarzenegger is said to favor privatization, but the Times says prospects look bleak for the industry so far. Of the state’s 49 prisons and community correctional facilities, nine are private, each of them a minimum security unit. Three of them will close this week, their contracts terminated by former Gov. Gray Davis. Their demise will cut the number of California convicts in private cells to 2,457 – a tiny fraction of the inmate count of 160,000.
Operators of the three facilities have spent the waning days of December in negotiations with the new administration, hoping to win reprieves. Residents of one locality hosting a private prison, Eagle Mountain, sent a personal plea for the prison to Schwarzenegger, who worked there a decade ago while filming “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”