SACRAMENTO—Car thieves, forgers, scam artists, drunken drivers and some drug dealers might never serve a day in prison—even for repeat crimes—under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposals to reduce California's inmate and parolee population, corrections department and law enforcement officials said.
It's one of the many potential consequences of abruptly upending the prison system to save a projected $400 million in corrections department costs over the next 18 months.
Schwarzenegger is asking state lawmakers to approve releasing nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offenders from prison if they have less than 20 months remaining on their sentences. It's part of the plan he announced Thursday to pare a $14.5 billion state budget deficit.
Those offenders would be released on "summary parole," where they would be subject to searches and drug tests but would not be under parole officers' supervision. They could be sent back to prison only if they were convicted of new crimes, not for routine parole violations.
The proposals would apply to new convicts as well as to current prisoners, said James Tilton, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"There is going to be a population that does not spend one day in prison," corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said.
The department said those convicted of drug offenses, drunken driving, white collar or property crimes such as vehicle theft, grand theft or receiving stolen property likely would serve little or no time.
Prosecutors said those crimes typically bring sentences of 16 months, two years or three years in prison, depending on the circumstances. The defendants may serve time in county jail while they await trial, but would not be sent to state prison after their conviction.
"You rip people off, and prison is no longer an option. That's not good public policy," objected Vacaville Police Chief Richard Word, president of the California Police Chiefs Association.
Nearly 40,000 criminals were sent to prison last year for non-serious, nonviolent offenses. However, some would be excluded from early release because of a violent criminal history or because of their behavior in prison, the corrections department said.
"As far as I'm concerned, this entire program is an act of insanity," said Kern County District Attorney Edward Jagels. "They will do less time than they would if they were sent to a local jail. ... The message will get very strongly to the criminal community that, except for a crime of violence, you have nothing to fear."
Sending criminals to local jails is barely an option because most are so crowded that inmates serve a fraction of their sentences, Jagels said.
"I'd say, 'Send me to prison,' knowing I'm never going to serve a day," said Ryan Sherman, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison guards and parole agents.
Schwarzenegger's plan would eliminate about 4,500 guard positions. Because of vacancies and attrition, Tilton estimated more than 1,000 guards might eventually be laid off.
Releasing long-term inmates a few months early will not boost California's crime rate, based on the experience of 13 other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada, according to a study released Thursday by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
"The research is overwhelming that you can do this without endangering public safety," said Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based research organization. "If people start trying to terrorize the community that there's going to be a crime wave, that's not going to happen."
Yet Krisberg is among those who worry that convicts released early to summary parole will not have adequate rehabilitation programs or the support they need to re-enter society.
"The state is basically saying, 'Good luck, and we hope you don't kill anybody,'" said Christine Ward, executive director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, based in Sacramento.
Releasing enough inmates to free up 22,000 prison beds next year, as Schwarzenegger proposes, also could trigger changes to the $7.8 billion prison and jail building program approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor last year.
It was designed to relieve crowding in the state's 33 prisons, which were built for about 100,000 inmates but currently house nearly 172,000.
Tilton said he still will make it a priority to build at least 32 500-bed community "re-entry centers" where inmates would go for rehabilitation and other services 12 months before their release. Krisberg, however, said that makes less sense if many inmates are going be freed 20 months before their sentences end.
Fewer inmates means the state may rethink plans to build new cells for 16,000 inmates at existing prisons, Tilton said. He said the money might be better spent replacing antiquated cells instead of adding new ones.
"I already believe the prisons are too big to manage," Tilton said.
A special panel of three federal judges is considering whether prison crowding is causing unconstitutionally poor medical and mental health care for inmates. If so, the three judges could impose their own prison population cap, potentially forcing the release of tens of thousands of inmates.
Nick Warner, lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs' Association, said he is puzzled that Schwarzenegger is fighting to prevent the court from ordering a population cap even as he proposes his own inmate-release plan to deal with the budget deficit.
Local law enforcement agencies are upset that Schwarzenegger proposes trimming their state funding by 10 percent, or roughly $70 million, while putting more criminals back on the street.
Schwarzenegger said his release plan is, in part, a reaction to the federal courts "breathing down our neck."
Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, who oversees the department's budget, said Schwarzenegger's plan potentially could trim the budget and satisfy the federal judges.
The proposal still would release too few inmates to solve the overcrowding, said Don Specter, director of the San Ramon-based Prison Law Office, which is suing the state over prison crowding.
The crowding problems are concentrated in old, high-security prisons that house few low-risk, short-time prisoners. Specter also doubts that lifting parole restrictions for "low-risk" convicts will reduce the prison population as much as the department predicts.
"Those are parolees who probably wouldn't come back, anyway. And if they do come back, they come back only for a short time," Specter said.
Corrections experts said the state's prison problem has been building for three decades, as lawmakers and voters added more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws.
Schwarzenegger has proposed an advisory commission to review the state's sentencing laws, but remains opposed to giving it any authority, Tilton said.
"I voted for these measures like 'three-strikes' too," said Word, president of the police chiefs association. "I guess this is the price you have to pay. The bill is due now."
The Mercury News