California, others consider releasing prisoners to cut budgets
SACRAMENTO — Proposals to release some nonviolent and elderly prisoners early have emerged in California and other states confronting massive budget shortfalls.
Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton enraged prosecutors by recently allowing hundreds of low-level felons to leave jails and prisons early as part of a plan to fill a corrections shortfall. And proposals to release some inmates early, pare down parole periods or reject the return of criminals nabbed in other states have emerged in Washington, Connecticut, Oregon, Nevada and Oklahoma.
California is facing a nearly $35 billion budget deficit, and leading Democratic lawmakers are suggesting chopping some sentences to shave state costs.
Gov. Gray Davis announced last week that the state is facing a $34.8 billion budget deficit over the next 18 months. The Democratic governor will submit his plan to deal with the deficit in January, and despite his longtime tough-on-crime stances and hesitancy to parole prisoners, he has repeatedly said he has not ruled out any proposals to cut costs.
Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean acknowledged that the governor would likely try to resist releasing prisoners early to help fill the budget hole.
Davis has long been friendly to law enforcement, including the influential prison guards union that donated lavishly to his re-election campaign, and a preliminary list of cuts he proposed largely spared prisons from the chopping block.
“It would be an uphill battle to convince governor Davis of the cost effectiveness of such a proposal,” McLean said. “But he has said many times that he hasn’t ruled anything off the table.”
However, California’s Department of Corrections already is planning to launch a program Jan. 1 to allow certain non-violent inmates in firefighting and work camps to earn two days for each day served as “a money-saving measure,” said Margot Bach, a department spokeswoman.
The early-release program was included in a legislation package that accompanied the budget signed by Davis in September, Bach said. The department has not computed precisely how much they have saved through the program, but that it totals “in the millions,” she said.
The discussion is stirring up a long-running debate in California over incarceration of low-level criminals and the controversial Three Strikes Law. During the boom times of the 1990s, California passed several anti-crime laws, and the state’s prison population has since swelled to more than 160,000.
Of those prisoners, 61 percent are considered nonviolent offenders, Bach said. Some 670 prisoners are between 65 and 69 years old while about 500 are older than 70, she said.
Prisoner advocates said the state is locking up too many people rather than spending money on rehabilitation, education and job programs that prevent crime.
“We blame the state’s overuse of incarceration for the state’s budget problems to begin with. Basically it has been a waste of money,” said Millard Murphy, a law professor who runs the prisons clinic at University of California, Davis, law school.
But Lawrence Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, said the state “should not seek to remedy budgetary woes by endangering the safety of our communities.”
“Courts have sentenced these inmates to state prison, and it would be highly improper for these inmates to receive a Christmas gift by way of early release,” Brown said.
Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, the top financial adviser to the Legislature, has suggested shortening the prison stays of some elderly and nonviolent prisoners — excluding drug offenders and those with “Three Strikes” — among potential solutions to the state’s budget woes.
Hill estimates her proposals would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The top state senator and the assembly’s public safety chairman each have endorsed studying such proposals. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton has suggested sending prisoners over age 70 home with electronic monitoring bracelets or releasing some inmates 10 to 30 days early.
“We’re not talking about letting Charlie Manson walk the streets,” Burton said.
Republican Assemblyman John Campbell, of Irvine, called such proposals “the least attractive spending reductions that I can imagine.”
“It basically interferes with the process that took place when they were tried, and that’s not something that we would do lightly at all,” said Campbell, the Assembly GOP’s pointman on the budget.
But he didn’t flatly rule out supporting such a measure, saying “as someone who believes that we should not be raising taxes, there is no spending reduction that we won’t entertain.”
Find this and other suggestions for budget savings at http://www.lao.ca.gov