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California to halt some illegal immigrant imprisonment

California will no longer impose short-stay prison terms on paroled and deported illegal immigrants who return to the state and get caught.

Instead, the undocumented offenders will be subject to lengthier federal terms under the new parole policy for illegal immigrants that was announced Monday by state prison officials.

"When they return across the border, we are finding that far too often, rather than being prosecuted for the federal felony crime of returning as a felon, they are being instead revoked on parole for a short term," state corrections chief Matthew Cate said.

Cate said the cash-strapped state can no longer afford the old policy.

"We need our partners in the federal government to stand beside us and to send a message that if you are a felon deported from California, and you return, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," he said.

Under the new policy, the prison system will still make room for the returnees if they come back to California and commit a new crime, Cate said.

But if they're detained only for their immigration status, Cate said, the state instead will turn the undocumented parolees' cases over to the federal government. He said the prison term for illegal re-entry into the United States ranges up to 10 years.

Now the undocumented offenders are subject only to four- to eight-month state parole violations.

According to Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation figures, an estimated 12,000 illegal immigrant parolees were deported in 2007 after serving their terms. About 1,600 of them then returned to California and were sent back to prison on the short-term parole violations.

The policy change announced Monday is expected to cut California's average daily prison population by 1,000 inmates, prison officials said.

Department spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said the reduction will save the state as much as $23 million in prison costs.

Monday's announcement came as the prison agency grapples with a directive from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to slash $400 million from the corrections budget.

It also comes amid a decades-long dispute between the state and the federal government over who should pay how much to house illegal immigrants imprisoned in California. Cate said the state spent $970 million last year and got $110 million back from the federal government.

Last week, Cate sent a letter to federal Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlining California's change in direction. Michael Keegan, a spokesman for the federal agency, said homeland security officials are reviewing the letter and that "we'll be responding through the proper government channels."

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, met Monday's announcement with derision.

"The feds are not going to take responsibility," Nielsen said. "This does nothing to force the issue whatsoever."

Julia Mass, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project in San Francisco, called the decision by the state agency "great."

"It's better that the state not be involved in that process," Mass said. "We hope the federal government is also careful with taxpayers' money and exercises good judgment about when it's necessary to impose long prison sentences."

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