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Parole holds key to California prison overcrowding

Between 60,000 and 70,000 California parolees return to custody annually for violations, many of them minor. Reforms passed this month could help cut prisoner tallies.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / September 29, 2009

Inmates sleep in a converted gym at the Deuel Voca­tional Institu­tion in Tracy, Calif., now at more than twice its capacity. .

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Standing in a dim prison gymnasium that's been converted into a vast cell to house 300 inmates, Phillip Nelson talks about how he's spent much of his adult life incarcerated. He's been in and out of the Deuel Vocational Institution, a 1950s-era penitentiary that is now California's most overcrowded prison, partly due to parole violations since being convicted of receiving stolen property in the 1980s.

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"I wouldn't be in prison if it weren't for the parole system," says Mr. Nelson, who was most recently sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole because, he claims, he missed a "class."

Many of his fellow inmates, who sleep in cots lined up in rows stretching the width of the gym, also say they returned to prison for parole violations.

That is set to change. California has made sweeping changes to its parole system that experts and government officials say are key to reducing dangerously high populations in the nation's largest correctional system.

"Until we get parole under control, we can't get prison crowding under control," says Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford University who has written extensively on California's parole system.

Between 60,000 and 70,000 California parolees return to custody annually for violations. They may have failed a drug test, gone missing, or even committed a new crime for which they were not prosecuted. They're sent back to a system that is so overcrowded and underserved that a federal judicial panel, describing conditions as "woefully and constitutionally inadequate," in August ordered the state to reduce its 170,000 prison population – double its capacity – by 40,000 inmates.

It was partly in response to that order that California lawmakers passed a prison reform bill this month.

Efforts to change the state's parole system have met fierce resistance for years from tough-on-crime advocates, says Ms. Petersilia. This time, too, concerns about relaxing parole rules were raised after the arrest of Phillip Garrido, a convicted sex offender and parolee, for the abduction of Jaycee Lee Dugard.

But the state now faces a perfect storm of problems surrounding its system of incarceration: a federal lawsuit, a fiscal crisis crippling its economy, and public opinion that has slowly been shifting away from rigid sentencing laws.

And in August, just four days after the judicial order, 55 inmates were injured and a dormitory burned down in a prison riot in Chino that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blamed on overcrowding.

No parole for low-risk criminals

Following the passage of the prison reform bill Sept. 11, state prison officials submitted a more ambitious plan to reduce overcrowding to the federal judicial panel. Even this doesn't go as far as the court wanted in cutting inmates – just 18,000 over two years versus 40,000.

But the prison bill does introduce parole reforms that have been long called for.

The crux of these reforms lies in reserving active parole supervision for only the most violent offenders. Instead of a system in which even the least violent offenders are put under some sort of supervision, low-risk criminals will now be placed on "banked parole," which means they can still be subject to warrantless searches by police but are not under regular supervision.

Also, parolees will be less likely to be sent back to prison if they commit a "technical" violation, such as failing a drug test. Instead, many will be sent to community-based programs.