California has begun to release hundreds of convicts all over the state in an attempt to bring down the population of the prisons.
The state is under a federal court order to cut the number of inmates by 40,000 — from about 168,000 now — over several years to ease overcrowding and improve health care in the state's 33 prisons.
Officials said the initial reduction of 6,500 inmates will happen gradually in two ways this year.
The first involves about 5,000 "low risk" prisoners who will no longer be on three years of supervised parole after they are released. They can still be searched by police, but they won't face technical violations — a failed drug test, for example — that often send parolees back to prison for several months at a time.
An additional 1,500 inmates are expected to trim their sentences by reaching certain educational, work-training and other rehabilitation milestones. Each achievement can shave up to six weeks per year off their terms.
Ordering the mass release of prisoners, a special panel of federal judges had noted last year that Californian prisoners died regularly of suicides or lack of proper care and decongestion was the only way out.
"Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons. There is, for example, uncontroverted evidence that, because of overcrowding, there are not enough clinical facilities or resources to accommodate inmates with medical or mental health needs at the level of care they require. There is also uncontroverted evidence that, because of overcrowding, there are not enough clinical or custodial personnel to ensure that inmates with medical or mental health needs are receiving appropriate treatment, are taking the medications that they need to take, are being escorted to their medical appointments in a timely manner, and are having their medical information recorded and filed properly. Additionally, as the Governor has stated, and as the California appellate court has found, overcrowded conditions - the use of triple bunks in gymnasiums and other areas not intended to be used for housing, for example - have "substantially increased the risk of the transmission of infectious illnesses among inmates and prison staff," the judges said.
A new law was also subsequently enacted to enable premature release of prisoners, considered low risk, and the law went into effect Monday last. Consequently the release process got going.
People convicted of crimes such as residential burglary, or those who are registered sex offenders are not eligible.
"The jail isn't releasing people with serious or violent felonies or sex registry offenses," said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Lisa Rodriguez, who worked with jail officials to determine which inmates qualified for the new credits.
The Legislature approved the plan late last summer as part of last year's state budget package; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law in October. The state is facing a severe financial crunch.
State Controller John Chiang issued a stern warning Friday about California's cash reserves, telling legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger they must act on nearly $9 billion in budget cuts the governor is seeking by March — or the state will run out of cash to pay its bills.
"While our current cash condition is marginally better than it was one year ago," Chiang wrote to leaders, "it is still precarious."