California Seeks to Free Thousands of Inmates Over Four Years

California’s Department of Corrections has announced new rules to parole inmates more quickly, in the hope of reducing the state’s prison population.

The proposed regulations still must be approved by state regulators. They would reduce the remaining time in prison for inmates who get a college degree or take self-help classes. One month of a sentence would be waived each year for prisoners who join and complete programs such as alcohol and substance counseling, anger management or life-skills lessons.

Those who complete a university degree would reduce their sentences by up to six months per year.

Reduced sentences would be available for almost all inmates, with the exception of those serving time for the most violent crimes.

Prisons near maximum population

The new rules also would allow non-violent felons to seek parole after completing the time behind bars set for their primary offense, instead of waiting until the cumulative time has been served.

The proposed changes are projected to release 9,500 inmates from California prisons over four years — a necessity because the state’s 34 prisons are nearing a maximum population, set by federal courts, of about 116,000 inmates.

California already has had to shift some prisoners from state institutions to county jails, or to prisons in other states, to avoid exceeding the courts’ limit.

The move is also part of a years long effort by advocates trying to improve the prison system by reducing the number of inmates. That move gained impetus in November when California voters approved a ballot initiative (Proposition 57) that allows certain felons to seek parole more quickly.

Police and prosecutors opposed the move for easier parole, arguing it would put dangerous offenders back on the streets too soon.  

The new rules also change the process that prosecutors and victims use to object to early parole, doing away with lengthy formal parole hearings in favor of written statements. Prosecutors say victims have the right to be heard before any decision for parole is made.

Obama commuted sentences of more than 1,500 offenders

Former President Barack Obama was an advocate of modernizing the U.S. prison system and regulating sentencing guidelines to ensure equal treatment for offenders.

Obama commuted — reduced or eliminated — the sentences of 1,715 prisoners during his eight years in the White House, more commutations than the last 12 presidents combined. More than 500 of the prisoners had been serving life sentences.

On his last day in office before President-elect Donald Trump was sworn in, Obama commuted the sentences of 330 prisoners convicted on federal drugs charges, part of his effort to correct what he described as unreasonably long mandatory minimum sentences.

The number and pace of the commutations became a political campaign issue, then-candidate Trump warning of safety concerns after prisoners were set free ahead of schedule. “Some of these people are bad dudes,” Trump said last October.

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