Pubdate: Sat, 12 Jan 2008
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer



What a difference a budget crisis makes.

Less than six months ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised that 
there was no way any California convict was going to get a break on 
his prison term.

"I am here to tell you that the early release of inmates is totally 
unacceptable," the governor said July 28. "They should only be let 
out when they have served their sentences and are ready to return to 
society. Period."

But with the state facing a $14.5 billion budget deficit over the 
next 18 months, Schwarzenegger on Thursday announced that more than 
22,000 nonviolent offenders will be released as much as 20 months 
early over the next year and a half in an effort to slash $260 
million from the Department of Corrections budget.

About half the inmates eligible for the early release program are 
expected to be drug offenders, with most of the rest in custody for 
property crimes like forgery, auto burglary and car theft, 
corrections officials say.

The state expects to save another $110 million by placing the former 
inmates on "summary parole," which means they won't have to meet with 
parole officers and can't be returned to prison for a parole violation.

A panel of federal judges, upset about overcrowding in the state 
prison system, is ready to slap a cap on the prison population, the 
governor said, just as the state's fiscal crisis is forcing 10 
percent, across-the-board cuts in state spending.

"So there are all kinds of problems developing," said Schwarzenegger, 
who backed and signed legislation last year for new prison construction.

The decision to give an early release to inmates whose offenses are 
"nonviolent, nonserious and not sexually related" was simply a matter 
of money, said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger.

But prisoner advocates said Schwarzenegger's decision was long 
overdue, citing studies showing that releasing inmates early doesn't 
result in an increase in crime.

"California is imprisoning way too many people," said Rose Braz of 
Oakland, campaign director for Critical Resistance, a group opposed 
to expansion of prisons and incarceration. "It's not surprising to 
see fear-mongering by opponents of early release, but decisions have 
to be based on reality."

By dropping 22,000 prisoners from the system as part of efforts to 
reduce the prison population by 35,000 inmates from the current total 
of 172,000, the state will be able to eliminate about 6,000 prison 
guard positions, with about 2,000 of those losses coming through 
layoffs, said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Those convicted of nonviolent offenses typically are sent to state 
prison for two years or less, said Steve Wagstaffe, chief deputy 
district attorney in San Mateo County. Because prisoners get credit 
for time served in county jail while awaiting trial, they could walk 
onto the street after being sentenced to two years in state prison.

"This is a dramatic change in the criminal justice system," Wagstaffe 
said. "It's as big as the changes in the early 1970s, when sentences 
started to increase and more people were sent to prison."

The new parole rules for such nonviolent offenders also mean they 
can't be quickly returned to prison violating parole. If police 
discover someone on summary parole with narcotics, for example, they 
can't simply ask a judge to send him to prison. They will have to 
file new charges and put the parolee on trial, a long and often 
expensive proposition.

If Schwarzenegger gets his way, plenty of ex-convicts are going to be 
back on the street and local officials are worried about what that will mean.

Even nonviolent offenders often return to their communities with drug 
problems, no jobs and no place to stay, said Alameda County 
Supervisor Keith Carson.

"The state drops their problems on us and it's challenging for 
counties to raise the money to deal with them," he said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake