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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.

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This will mean many fewer people cycling through California's prisons. That will reduce prison populations and almost halve the caseload for each parole officer, with the intent that officers can spend more time supervising the most dangerous prisoners.

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"The centerpiece of this legislation is the parole reform that protects public safety," says Rachel Cameron, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman.

Busting state budgets

California's reforms mirror other states' moves to rethink a tough-on-crime attitude first adopted by politicians – and demanded by the public – in the 1970s, attitudes that extended through the drug war of the 1990s.

The recession has highlighted the burden of overcrowded prisons nationwide. As budgets shrink, prison spending continues to swell as inmate populations grow. California spent about $10 billion to house roughly 170,000 inmates in 2008 – a 32 percent increase in spending since 2005.

States such as South Carolina, Ken­tucky, and Illinois have set up senten­cing commissions in the past few years to rethink tough sentencing laws that many say are at the root of overcrowding. (In California, those laws indirectly led to the adoption of universal parole supervision.)

Life-term sentences, for instance, quadrupled over the past 24 years, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington group that advocates for prison reforms. That's largely due to "three strikes" laws that mandate 25 years to life for third-time felony offenders.

The fact that California's reforms don't include a sentencing commission suggests to some that state politicians are still hesitant to seem soft on crime. The prison bill originally held proposals for such a commission, as well as provisions to allow some offenders to serve the last year of their sentence under house arrest, but they were removed in an effort to win over Republicans, who said it went too easy on criminals.

Parole reforms are still opposed by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a powerful force in state politics. "If hardened criminals are released early – without supervision or support – crime will increase and lives will be lost," said the association's acting president, Chuck Alexander, in a statement.

Dingy, crowded cells

Whether parole reform alone can fix the problem of prison overcrowding is unclear; what's not is that it desperately needs fixing.

At the Deuel prison in Tracy, 3,900 inmates crowd into a facility designed for 1,700. It's a vocational institute in name only. Gilbert Valenzuela, the public information officer, says that when he arrived 20 years ago, Deuel had a vocational shop where inmates could learn a trade. "[That] would have really benefited the inmates a lot and also the community," he says.

Chief Deputy Warden Ron Rackley acknowledges crowding has taken a toll on infrastructure and on staff and prisoners. In his airy office, seemingly a world away from the dingy cells, he says, "When you are sleeping with your head at the foot of another man, you tend to be irritable."

Jenaro Torres, a tattooed inmate with thick braids, is blunter: "At least in a cell you only have to deal with the other person," he says. "This isn't even made for living."•