To save money, governor plans massive prison release

SACRAMENTO -- In what may be the largest early release of inmates in U.S. history, Gov. Schwarzenegger's administration is proposing to open prison gates next year to about 22,000 low-risk offenders.

According to details of a budget proposal made available to The Sacramento Bee, the administration will ask the Legislature to authorize the release of certain nonserious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders who are in the final 20 months of their terms.

The proposal would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the cash-strapped state an estimated $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and more than $780 million through June 30, 2010. The proposal also calls for a reduction of more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of them involving correctional officers.

A gubernatorial spokesman said no final decisions had been made.

The administration, which is looking at across-the-board budget cuts to stem a budget deficit pegged as high as $14 billion, is looking for more savings by shifting lower-risk parolees into what officials describe as a "summary" parole system. Such a shift also would require legislative approval.

Under "summary" parole, offenders would remain on supervised release and still would be subject to searches by law enforcement at any time, but they would not be returned to prison on technical violations. It would take a new crime to return an offender to prison.

A summary parole system would cut the daily average population of released offenders by 18,522 in the next fiscal year and reduce the prison population by 6,249 more, according to the proposal. It would save the state an estimated $98 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year and $329 million through 2009-10. The number of job cuts in the parole proposal would hit 1,660.