As police officers and deputies are being laid off across California, the idea is almost breathtaking: Reduce California's prison population by 27,300 inmates, partly by letting some out of the gates.
The plan, part of Gov. Schwarzenegger's effort to balance the budget, is designed to trim corrections spending by $1.2 billion.
But it has rattled the nerves of local law enforcement leaders.
The Stanislaus County jails have 1,330 to 1,350 inmates each day, said Sheriff Adam Christianson. A federal mandate dictates that the jails can't house more than 1,492 inmates per day, he said.
With the inmate reduction plan and no money to expand facilities, Christianson said, "I'm going to have to early-release more inmates in order to house re-offenders."
Christianson said more jail and prison inmates on the street could bring more crime to the county.
"But it's still too early to determine the consequences of these budget cuts," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen. I'm still waiting to see."
State officials say they will tread carefully. Those released, they say, will be low-risk offenders who have been evaluated to determine whether they can be released safely with global positioning system monitoring.
Corrections officials said they do not consider the plan to be an "early release" program, because most of the reductions to the inmate population would come through other methods: Nonviolent offenders who violate parole would not automatically be returned to prison; inmates who are not U.S. citizens could be turned over to federal authorities for deportation, and some offenders would remain in county jail rather than end up in state prison.
After recess, a hot topic
When word of the plan emerged during budget negotiations last month, one Republican labeled it "radioactive," and legislators are expected to begin tackling the issue upon their return from recess Aug. 17.
Settling the issue is critical. Without an agreement, Schwarzenegger's administration will not realize the monthly savings of $100 million expected from the prison population reduction, and cuts will have to be made elsewhere, said Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate.
Christianson said the governor's plan will send inmates out on the street and force local law enforcement to investigate, detain and prosecute those who re-offend.
"Why should we live in fear about being victimized by people who have already earned the right to stay in prison?" he said.
He said local government agencies already have cut their budgets because of the faltering economy. He said the Sheriff's Department has eliminated a sergeant's position, and kept vacant four administrative positions to maintain staffing for patrol and the jail facilities.
Acting Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden said he understands state officials' need to reduce expenses, but they have to keep public safety in mind and release only those who are less likely to re-offend.
"I don't think it can be a wholesale dump into the community," Harden said.
Besides the governor's plan, a federal judicial panel Tuesday ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 to improve treatment of ailing and mentally ill inmates, saying there is no other way to bring the system's medical care up to adequate standards.
The Schwarzenegger administration will appeal but may need to wait until the judges enter a final order, said Cate, the corrections secretary.
The governor's plan would cut the state's prison population of 167,700 inmates by roughly 27,300 over the next fiscal year. The proposal relies on various maneuvers and reclassifications to get those numbers down.
For instance, 8,500 felons who are not citizens could have their sentences commuted by the governor, then be turned over to federal authorities for deportation. The administration says only inmates who have not committed a violent or sex-related offense and who have no more than one felony conviction would be considered.
An additional 1,600 could earn credits on their sentences by completing rehabilitation and education programs.
A reduction of 5,300 inmates could come from changing the way parolees are monitored. Low-level offenders would not be subject to active supervision and so would be less likely to be found in violation of parole. Some who did violate parole would be placed on GPS monitoring rather than returned to prison.
Christianson said it's not known who will decide which inmates are low-level offenders and how that determination will be made.
"To release these inmates without any accountability, consequence or supervision will be a mistake," he said.
About 5,600 others could be kept out of prison by changing how property crimes are classified. Instead of a $400 threshold, property loss would have to reach $2,500 before a crime is considered a felony.
Harden said the felony threshold was $200 when he began working for the Modesto Police Department in 1984. He said it may be time to consider a higher level -- without compromising public safety.
"But $2,500 just seems too extreme for me," he said. "That just seems like a lot of property needs to be stolen before it can be considered a felony."
Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan involves the release of 6,300 inmates. These would be inmates deemed eligible to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest in a home, treatment center or hospital while under GPS monitoring. Elderly and infirm inmates would be included in this category.
A key challenge is how prison officials evaluate an inmate's propensity for reoffending.
"It's important to keep in mind that the system can't be described as perfect," Cate added. "The current system has resulted in 65 to 70 percent recidivism rates, so it's not like we've got an ideal system in place now.
"Of course there are going to be crimes committed; there are crimes committed now. The thing is not to increase those rates."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.