California Plans Early Release of 76,000 Inmates Including Violent Felons

"cell block d" (CC BY 2.0) by sean hobson

On Saturday, with little notice, California is increasing early release credits for 76,000 inmates, as it further reduces the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system.

There are over 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes who will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been put in place since 2017. 

This includes 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. 

Under California’s “three strikes” law, over 10,000 inmates convicted of a second serious but non violent offense will now be eligible for release after serving only half of their sentences. This is increase in credits from current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.

The corrections department also projected the same increased released time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers. 

Accordingly, as of Saturday, all minimum-security inmates in work camps, such as those in firefighting camps will also be qualified for earlier release for every month they spend in the camp, regardless of the severity of their crime.

“Gavin Newsom” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Gage Skidmore

The State Office of Administrative Law approved the changes this week with little public notice. They were submitted and approved within a three-week span as emergency regulations.

“The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons,” department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement.

“Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner,” she said.

Simas gave the emergency regulations and measures of how many inmates they will move at the request of The Associated Press, but the department otherwise made no public announcement.

Meanwhile, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims, said the notion that the credits are for good behavior is a misnomer.

Scheidegger said, “You don’t have to be good to get good time credits. People who lose good time credits for misconduct get them back, they don’t stay gone.” He added, “They could be a useful device for managing the population if they had more teeth in them. But they don’t. They’re in reality just a giveaway.”

“You don’t have to be good to get good time credits. … They’re in reality just a giveaway,” Scheidgger said.

He also contended that generally, inmates should not be released any earlier. 

In mid-April, officials announced that they will be closing a second prison as a result of the dwindling population, fulfilling a promise by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The declining population continued when voters reduced penalties in 2014, for property and drug crimes. Two years later, Newsom approved allowing earlier parole for most inmates.

Republican California Senator Jim Nielsen, criticized Newsom for this time acting unilaterally. 

Nielsen said, “He’s doing it on his own authority, instead of the will of the people through their elected representatives or directly through their own votes.” He added, “This is what I call Newsom’s time off for bad behavior. He’s putting us all at greater risk and there seems to be no end to the degree to which he wants to do that.”

“This is what I call Newsom’s time off for bad behavior. He’s putting us all at greater risk,” Nielsen said. 

According to Simas, the department was granted authority through the rulemaking process. The emergency regulations take effect Saturday, however, the department must submit permanent regulations next year, which will be then be considered with a public hearing and opportunity for public comment.

Newsom faces a recall election this fall driven in part by those upset over his handling of the pandemic, including sweeping orders that shut down the economy for months.

But many Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups have been calling for further releases or shorter sentences. Californians United for a Responsible Budget, for instance, earlier in April said the state should shutter at least 10 more of its 35 prisons.