Prison Release Proposal in CA Budget Is Raising Eyebrows

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This week in Sacramento, lawmakers are debating billions of dollars of budget cuts Governor Schwarzenegger proposed for this year and next. California's facing a projected $14 billion deficit in 2009, unless lawmakers cut programs or boost revenues. One proposal that's stirred up immediate controversy: letting 20,000 inmates out of state prison 20 months before their terms are up. KPCC's Julie Small reports it's more than a money-saving plan.

Julie Small: Corrections officials say they're not letting everyone out. They'd only release inmates who'd never been convicted of a violent crime or sexual offense, and who stayed out of trouble in prison. Corrections would also place these offenders on summary parole... which means that the state wouldn't actively supervise them. Judges sentence some low-level offenders to less than 20 months. Corrections boss James Tilton said those people wouldn't even go to prison.

James Tilton: Yes, the reality is someone could come to the door, and be convicted of one of these offenses, have six months to serve, and that person would be moved to summary parole.

Small: The proposal would save the state roughly $400 million over the next couple of years. That's not a lot of cash in a big cash crunch, but the cut could pay a bonus. Releasing 20,000 inmates, and preventing thousands more from entering, might appease three federal judges threatening to cap the state's prison population to relieve overcrowding. Governor Schwarzenegger acknowledged the situation was a factor in his decision to propose the change.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: We have institutions that were built for 100,000 people and there's 172-and-a-half-thousand people in there. I think the federal judges are breathing down our neck and saying that "We're going to put a cap on you on 140,000 prisoners. That's all you can have in there." So there's all kinds of problems developing. Now, it happens to be at a time when we have a budget situation where we want to cut across the board.

Small: The budget cut could help Corrections with another problem it faces: filling thousands of prison guard vacancies. If the legislature enacts the governor's proposal, Corrections boss Tilton says the department would lay off 2,000 officers.

California could start releasing non-violent felons this year.