State release plan causes stir

July 23, 2009 7:02:21 PM PDT
One aspect of the budget fight that's far from over is how to cut more than a $1 billion from the Department of Corrections. One controversial proposal is to release 27,000 inmates early, and many believe that will put the public in danger.

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The plan to release nearly 27,000 inmates from state prisons caused so much controversy, the governor seemed to back away from the idea -- even though his office proposed it.

"We want to do everything we can to make everyone feel comfortable because that component is a very important component in the budget because otherwise the next choice is early releases, and we don't want to do that," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger R-California.

UC Berkeley law professor and criminologist Jonathan Simon says the fears are unfounded, just the phrase "early release" has become a political lightening rod.

"Release is getting to be one of those words, sort of like taxes, where you have to invent new words to descibe what you're doing bec the've become so politicized," said Simon, PhD.

The politicized battle continues. Next month state legislators will decide exactly how to make the department of corrections budget work after cutting $1.2 billion out of it.

A decision that could mean some non-violent inmates are allowed to serve the remainder of their sentences outside prison walls.

Under the governor's plan, illegal immigrants who didn't commit a violent crime or sex offense would be handed over to immigration officials for deportation.

Some elderly and sick inmates would be transfered to home detention, low-to-moderate risk parollees might go unsupervised by parole officers and some felonies would be charged as misdemeanors.

"Those crimes consist of bad checks, possession receiving stel prop grand theft and petty theft with a prior," said Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern.

Ahern says public safety could be at risk.

"Anybody inveovled in our safety isn't going to be thrilled about th ereduciton in sentences or people being released from prison," he said.

As for how many inmates get released back to the Bay Area, that remains to be seen, but by law in California inmates released from prison are returned to their last county of legal residence.

Some believe that will mean more work for local law enforcement.

"Regardless of the number of inmates that are released out of CDCR, they're still going to have an impact on local communities," said Contra Costa Chief Probation Officer Lionel Chatman.

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