Amid budget crisis, California makes parole easier

California's budget crisis and overcrowded prisons have led to a new reality for thousands of convicted felons: Parole is getting a lot easier - no more random drug tests, travel rules or requirements to check in with an officer.

Restrictions have been relaxed for nonviolent criminals like burglars, drug offenders and swindlers under a new law that aims to shrink the prison population by reducing the number of minor parole violations that send ex-cons back to prison.

About 24,000 nonviolent ex-cons are expected to qualify for less supervision. The number includes many people already on parole and those expected to be paroled over the next year.

Nonviolent offenders leaving prison will still be required to register their addresses with the prisons agency, but a state parole officer won't check up on them. Unannounced home visits and searches will be left to local law enforcement, if anyone at all.

Local law enforcement agencies and community groups are worried. They claim less supervision will lead to a spike in crime, compounding the exact problem state officials are trying to remedy.

"It's a pretty significant concern from the public safety standpoint," said Cmdr. Todd Rogers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "There's a really good chance these guys are going to go out and caper again."

The rules, which took effect Jan. 25, come as the state desperately tries to close a $20 billion budget gap. Nearly 11 percent of the state budget goes to prisons - about $8.6 billion this year. Officials estimate the measures will save the state about $500 million its first full year.

California, which has the nation's largest prison population, hopes dropping the restrictions, coupled with an early release program that will free 3,000 current inmates under new rules that allow them to shave time for completing rehabilitation and vocational programs, will cut California's 167,000-inmate prison population by 6,500.

The changes will also free up state parole officers to focus on ex-prison gang members, sex offenders and violent criminals, whose 70 percent recidivism rate is more than double that of the nonviolent ex-cons.

"Our supervision will be higher on those more likely to re-offend," said California Corrections spokesman Gordon Hinkle.

With about a third of new admissions to prisons caused by parole violations, often for seemingly minor mistakes like missing meetings with parole officers, states have long grappled with how much supervision is appropriate for parolees. Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania, for instance, have cut supervision time for certain offenders.

California has the nation's highest rate of sending parolees back to prison, with a little more than two-thirds of all inmates having been sent to prison for violating their parole terms, said prisons expert Alison Lawrence of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"When you see a number that high, there is a sign that something should change," Lawrence said.

Local agencies being asked to pick up the monitoring of nonviolent offenders are skeptical. Several of them, themselves struggling with budget cuts, decried the extra workload.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which is in the state's most populous county, has about 7,700 felons who will qualify for the easier restrictions. Rogers said the department will start doing what the state's parole officers used to do.

"We still want them to know that they need to behave themselves," Rogers said of the ex-cons. "Some would argue it's an unfunded mandate transferring responsibility to cities and counties."

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he was expecting 1,000 parolees to qualify for lighter restrictions in his largely rural area that has an unemployment rate of 17 percent.

"People are frustrated," Youngblood said. "When you mix that frustration with alcohol and nothing to do because they are unemployed, nothing good can come from that mixture when it comes to public safety."

Youngblood laid off 40 deputies last year because of budget cuts. He's going to bring in deputies on long-term sick leave to handle office duties, freeing other officers to check up on parolees.

Local law enforcement agencies also are creating programs to let inmates know about community resources that are geared to helping them find jobs, health services and housing - duties usually carried out by parole officers.

Scott H. Silverman of Second Chance, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps former prisoners find work, said the changes simply pass responsibility to the local level.

"It's a quick fix, but it's only going to make the state feel better for about five minutes," said. "Everyone is going to get hurt on a local level."

Silverman said parolees could be emboldened by the lack of restrictions and he criticized the state for it's lack of a support network.

"They know they are really going to have to do something goofy before they will get sent back to prison," he said of the ex-cons. "We have a 70 percent recidivism rate under supervised parole. What's it going to be like when they are not supervised?"

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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