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Thousands of female inmates in California set for early release

September 12, 2011 |  3:19 pm

California Institution for Women in Chino-Corona

Drastically redefining incarceration in California, prison officials are about to start releasing thousands of female inmates to serve the remainder of their sentences at home.

The move will help the state meet a court-imposed deadline to thin its chronically overcrowded prisons, and could be extended to male inmates in the near future, administrators said Monday.

Incarcerated mothers who were convicted of "non-serious," "non-sexual" crimes -- and who have two years or less remaining on their sentences -- could start going home as early as next week, said corrections spokeswoman Dana Toyama. The women will be required to wear ankle bracelets and report to parole officers.

The program, for which more than 4,000 female inmates could be eligible, is "a step in breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration," said state prisons Secretary Matthew Cate, arguing that, "family involvement is one of the biggest indicators of an inmate’s rehabilitation."

But skeptics, including prosecutors and crime victim advocates, opposed the idea as it worked its way through the state Legislature last year. 

“If they were such great mothers to begin with, they never would have committed the heinous crime that got them sent to state prison,” said Harriet Salarno, founder of Sacramento-based Crime Victims United. In many cases, the children might be better off in foster care, Salarno said.

Reuniting families is not the only consideration for prison officials. 

In May, they lost an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark overcrowding case. A panel of federal judges previously had ruled that California prisons were so full that the lack of access to medical care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, state officials are straining to meet a strict time line that requires them to reduce the inmate population by more than 30,000 by June 2013.

If all goes well with the release of female prisoners, the Alternative Custody Program, which was originally conceived as a way to reunite mothers with their dependent children, could be extended to male inmates in the near future, Toyama said. 

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--Jack Dolan in Sacramento

Photo: Inmates watch television in the converted day room at the California Institution for Women in Chino-Corona in 2006. Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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