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California state prison changes take effect today

January 25, 2010 |  1:25 pm

California state prisons today began offering inmates more credit against their sentences and reducing the number of people sent back behind bars as part of a plan to decrease the prison population by 6,500 inmates over the next year.

Inmates can shave time off their sentences if they work on firefighting crews or get a high school diploma or trade-school certificate or complete drug- or alcohol-rehabilitation programs.

Low-risk offenders, including those convicted of nonviolent crimes, will not have regular supervision by a parole agent. And such offenders will no longer be returned to prison for technical violations such as alcohol use, missed drug tests or failure to notify the state of an address change.

Over time, said prisons chief Matthew Cate, the new rules will lower the rate at which parolees are returned to state lockups, reduce crime overall and "save, over the course of a full year, a half a billion dollars for California taxpayers."

The state will thus address its prison crowding problem while "significantly increasing public safety by focusing our resources on high-risk offenders, serious offenders, violent offenders and sex offenders," Cate said.

Some law-enforcement officials, state legislators and crime-victim advocates took a different view, predicting a jump in crime in California as more people leave prison earlier with less supervision.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Brian Johnson, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said the changes mean the state "will start to release numerous dangerous felons into our community."

The changes were approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year.

-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento