Staff and Wire Reports
Posted: 01/25/2010 09:30:48 PM PST

Under a state law that took effect Monday, California has started to reduce its prison population by about 6,500 inmates over the next year.

The bill was signed as part of last year’s state budget package. Under it, early-release credits for inmates who complete educational and vocational programs will be expanded, letting more inmates leave prison earlier.

At the same time, the state will stop its monitoring of low-level offenders after their release. That is designed to reduce the number of parolees returned to prison, essentially because the state will not know if they are violating the terms of their parole.

The release is “manageable” but still a concern, said Michael A. Ramos, San Bernardino County’s district attorney.

“People in state prison had plenty of opportunities to correct their behavior, so those being released from state prison are more likely than not to commit further crimes, so we are going to watch these folks very closely,” Ramos said.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said the law will let parole agents concentrate on more dangerous ex-convicts.

Agents will be responsible for supervising an average of 48 parolees instead of the current 70 because the law ends California’s practice of automatically putting every released convict on three years of parole.

Ex-convicts deemed less dangerous or less likely to commit new crimes will not be monitored at all, although they still can be searched without a warrant.

The reduced caseload will let the state more intensively watch gang members, sex offenders and violent felons.

“We’re going back to the time when the parole officer not only has time to be a cop, but add that social-worker factor,” Cate said. “We could see the recidivism rate actually go down in California, so that’s the great hope.”

Cate acknowledged some unsupervised ex-felons will inevitably commit serious crimes after their release. But he said residents will be safer in general because parole agents will be able to concentrate on higher-risk parolees.

“Releasing convicted felons from state prisons is a problem – not a solution to the state’s budget crisis,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich. “It is a reckless and irresponsible Band-Aid on a wound that could hemorrhage into a public-safety crisis.”

The early releases of state inmates comes as the governor has proposed to save $334 million next fiscal year through a proposed statutory change that would require jail time instead of state prison for certain felonies, including grand theft, receiving stolen property, check fraud and various drug offenses.

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