California 's top prison official, tasked with finding $400 million in cost savings, unveiled proposals Friday to save money by reducing the number of parolees by 30,000 and the state's prison inmate population by 8,000 by next summer.
The cost-cutting effort was prompted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's line-item veto of prison spending before he signed the state budget in February to close a $41 billion shortfall through June 2010.
Matt Cate, Schwarzenegger's prison secretary, said his proposal centers around drastic changes to the state's parole system - including releasing a quarter of the lower-risk parolees.
He also wants to cut the prison population by expanding good-behavior credits for inmates who take education and job-training classes, and shorter prison sentences by increasing the dollar-value threshold for grand theft.
The plan also calls for eliminating 150 to 200 positions at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's headquarters in Sacramento , where about 2,000 employees work, he said.
"Our view is that this is both good, sound public policy on who we supervise and how, and to generate savings," Cate said. "I think this is a best-of-two-worlds proposal."
Representatives of a victims' rights group and the state prison guards union criticized the plans.
"I'm sensitive to the cost savings, but (releasing large numbers of parolees) is kind of rolling the dice, too," said Nina Salarno, executive board member of Crime Victims United of California.
Mike Jimenez, a spokesman for California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said taking parole agents off the street will only jeopardize public safety.
"The reality is that the, quote, nonviolent, nonserious offender who is least supervised is most likely to re-offend," he said.
But Cate argued that his proposals will save the state money and help the strained parole and prison systems work more effectively.
The plan calls for nonviolent felons considered to be at low and moderate risk of committing other crimes to be taken off parole. Instead, they will be subject to warrantless searches and seizures by local authorities for at least three years.
Cate estimates that the plan would cut about 30,000 of 120,000 parolees from the rolls. Some of the savings would be spent to focus on parolees who are more likely to commit another serious crime, and to hire more agents to track down fugitives.
The prison secretary also wants to reduce the number of parolees returning to prison for technical violations by enforcing alternate sanctions such as forcing them to wear Global Positioning System devices.
Cate said he thinks such changes would reduce recidivism and result in cutting the inmate population by about 4,000.
He also wants to reduce the prison population with credit enhancements for inmates who complete certain rehabilitation programs such as GED, college degrees and vocational training. Cate also wants to change property-crime thresholds. For example, the current threshold for grand theft charges is $400, which was set in 1982. Cate wants to change that to $950.
Those changes will probably reduce the prison population by another 4,000, Cate said.
The entire plan is "built on trying to make good public policy decisions by spending less money on low-level offenders and invest some of that on high-risk, high-level guys," he said.