California plans to release inmates

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Senate, after a highly charged debate, approved a plan Thursday to trim the state’s prison population by 27,000 inmates, acting over the objections of Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups.

The proposal supported by the Legislature’s Democratic majority and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would let thousands of inmates be released early from state prison or avoid prison time altogether.

It is intended to cut $1.2 billion from corrections spending as part of a state deficit-cutting deal struck last month.

Passage was less certain in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, which was scheduled to take up the measure later today. For instance, three Democratic Assemblymembers are planning to run for state attorney general next year and are reluctant to vote for any bill that might make them appear soft on crime.

If also approved by the Assembly, the governor’s proposal would release or divert from state prisons 27,000 inmates in the current fiscal year and another 10,000 in the fiscal year that begins next July.

It would do so through a range of measures:

  • Inmates with less than 12 months to serve, who are over age 60 or who are medically incapacitated could be released from prison and given home detention with electronic monitoring.

    Sentences for certain property crimes will be lowered to misdemeanors, meaning convicts won’t have to spend time in prison. Those include vehicle theft, petty theft with a prior conviction, receiving stolen property and check-kiting, a scam that primarily targets banks with fraudulent deposits.

    Allow more inmates to gain early release by completing educational, vocational or substance abuse rehabilitation programs.

    Ease supervision for thousands of parolees, making it more difficult to send them back to prison for violations.

    The package also would establish a commission to review California’s sentencing guidelines. Opponents fear its primary mission would be to determine whether some sentences could be lessened as a way to take pressure off an overcrowded prison system.

    The new guidelines would be due by July 2012. The changes would take effect automatically unless they were rejected by the governor and a majority vote in the Legislature.

    Republicans offered angry denouncements on the Senate floor. They said provisions to reduce some crimes to misdemeanors, release certain inmates before they have completed their sentences and ease conditions for parole would be a threat to public safety.

    Schwarzenegger’s office said failure of the bill would leave a $1.2 billion hole in the state’s budget and force California to find other ways to release inmates. A panel of federal judges earlier this summer ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 over two years.

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