76,000 California Inmates to Be Eligible for Earlier Release

State corrections officials say the goal is to reward inmates who better themselves while critics fear the move could have serious consequences

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According to an Associated Press report, California is giving 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, the opportunity to leave prison earlier for good behavior.

The changes to the state’s prison system, once the U.S.’s largest, were approved this week by the state Office of Administrative Law and went into effect Saturday, but it'll be months or years before inmates are released.

According to the report, “More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017. That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.”

More than 10,000 inmates convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense under the state’s “three strikes” law will be eligible for release after serving half their sentences under the change. That’s an increase from the current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.

The report also states that the corrections department has projected the same increased release time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers. In addition, all minimum-security inmates in work camps, including those in firefighting camps, will be eligible for the same month of earlier release for every month they spend in the camp, regardless of the severity of their crime.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is pushing back against the AP’s reporting, telling NBC 7 in a statement that the potential for early releases from good behavior credits was voted on and approved in 2016, that this change does not result in the “automatic release” of any inmate and that the regulations “are still subject to final approval.”

“This is not an early release program. Under the statute, incarcerated individuals are able to receive credits for good behavior and participation in the rehabilitation program. Proposition 57, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2016, allowed CDCR to submit regulations to provide additional opportunities for incarcerated people to receive these Good Conduct Credits. CDCR submitted these regulations to increase the rate at which incarcerated people can receive Good Conduct Credits which ensures the opportunity for public comment. This change was approved in the 2020-21 state budget…The regulations are still subject to final approval, and that process allows for public input. These changes do not result in the automatic release of any incarcerated individuals. This effort incentivizes incarcerated individuals to have sustained good behavior and encourages them to participate in rehabilitation programs which reduces recidivism to make our communities safer. Our department’s focus is on a person’s rehabilitation and good behavior,” said Vicky Waters, Special Advisor and Assistant Secretary of Communications at the CDCR.

The news drew mixed emotions from California residents hearing about the change for the first time Saturday morning.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said San Diego resident Fulberto Rodriguez. “Everyone deserves a second chance…I think most people that have spent time in jail realize what they’ve lost so I think they’d be anxious to come back to society.”

It’s personal for one San Diego mother who preferred not to be identified; she told NBC 7 her stepbrother is serving a ten-year sentence for a non-violent crime.

“He really got the short end of the stick because he didn’t have an appropriate council,” she said.

Still, she called the change “a terrifying thought” and said it will “lead to a lot of sleepless nights.”

“Absolutely, people deserve a second chance, but I think it all goes back to how are these people going to be monitored when they are released?…Are they going to be put into programs where they’re able to reform themselves back into society?” she said. “That’s my major concern…I think we need to do a lot to help them, but it depends on what their crime was.”

The state has been trying to cut its prison system population for years.

Recently, numbers have dropped to around 96,000 from the roughly 117,000 in state prisons before the pandemic began.

The department now must submit permanent regulations next year; they will be considered a public hearing and opportunity for public comment, according to the report.

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