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May 13, 2008 -- Sacramento Bee (CA)

Schwarzenegger Drops Plan For Early Release Of 22,000 Inmates

By Andy Furillo, Sacramento Bee

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has dumped his plan to release about 22,000 lower-risk inmates from prison before they complete their terms, The Bee learned Monday.

The revised budget he will present on Wednesday will jettison the plan, which would have freed prisoners doing time for crimes such as drug possession and car theft who had less than 20 months to go on their terms.

The governor had sought the change as part of a 10 percent, across-the-board general fund budget cut to deal with a multibillion-dollar deficit.

His plan was unlikely, however, to win support in upcoming budget negotiations. Not a single legislator in the state had expressed support for the idea.

Press secretary Aaron McLear confirmed that Schwarzenegger will drop the early release plan but declined to comment further.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, welcomed its demise.

"I'm sure the governor realized that up and down the state, no one wants to see prisoners released early," Solorio said. "I was an early advocate for dropping that plan, and I'm glad that he's realizing people need to serve their time."

Critics of the state prison system had seen the early release proposal as a possible opening to a wholesale overhaul of California's approach to handling criminals.

Dan Macallair, the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, expressed disappointment with the governor's decision to back away from early release.

"The correctional crisis in California cannot be solved through the normal political processes of Sacramento," Macallair said. "This is just another example of that. Nobody has the courage to do the right thing."

California's prisons are jammed to about twice their designed capacity. The overall prison population is a little more than 170,000.

In submitting the early release proposal in January, the governor's budget writers said it could have saved the state nearly $1.2 billion through the 2009-10 fiscal year.

On Monday, administration sources said the main factor in their decision to withdraw the idea is that the inmate population has been dropping on its own over the past year. They said the prison system is now housing 2,107 fewer inmates every day in the current budget year than the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had anticipated. The sources asked for anonymity because the revised budget has not yet been made public.

Fewer inmates coming in from the courts and fewer parolees returning to prison for violating the technical conditions of their releases from custody are accounting for the lower population numbers, the sources said.

Together, the result has been an estimated savings this year of $27.9 million, they said. Projections for next year indicate the potential for another $78.2 million in savings.

Along with early release, the administration had sought to achieve budget savings through what it called a "summary parole" plan.

Schwarzenegger intends to stick with that piece of his proposal. Offenders who violate their parole conditions but don't commit new crimes wouldn't be returned to prison under that plan. They would still be subject to warrantless searches by local law enforcement.

While the governor is planning to withdraw the early release plan, efforts to cap the prison population are still the subject of ongoing litigation in the federal courts.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Rafael. His firm is representing inmates in cases where the state's provision of medical and mental health care in the prisons has been found to be unconstitutional.

Contact Andy Furillo at

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