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Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early

ยท South Carolina, meanwhile, is looking to abolish parole, in part to slow the growth of its prison population since there would be fewer people returned to prison for parole violations.

Proposals to free prisoners are still met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns.

The California plan has drawn criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state's nonpartisan fiscal adviser, which warned that 63,000 mid-level offenders would "effectively go unpunished, serving little or no prison time" and would not have active supervision.

The proposal also worries local governments and police in California, particularly in Los Angeles County -- home to the nation's largest prison system, which supplies about a third of the state's prison population. "It's kind of like the volcano has erupted," County Sheriff Lee Baca said. "To let out 63,000 prisoners on summary parole -- which means no parole -- is not good policy."

Bob Pack, 52, of Danville, Calif., is particularly disturbed by the prospect of softer punishment forthose convicted of drunken driving. In 2003, Pack's two children -- Troy, 10, and Alana, 7 -- were struck and killed when a drunk driver's car jumped a curb and ran onto a neighborhood sidewalk. The driver had three prior drunken-driving convictions.

Said Pack: "I guarantee you that if this program is fulfilled, somewhere down the road -- it could be three months or a year -- there's going to be a family in court over the death of a loved one, because of someone who got out early."

But for now, state officials are finding themselves under mounting pressure to cut costs and are looking at their rising prison population.

Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.

In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent.

California -- which has the country's worst fiscal crisis, with a potential shortfall of $20 billion -- has seen its prison-related spending swell to $10.4 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. About 170,000 inmates are packed into California's 33 prisons, which were designed to hold 100,000. About 15,000 prisoners are being housed in emergency beds, in converted classrooms and gymnasiums.

Rhode Island's prison population peaked and its 4,000-inmate prison capacity was exceeded in recent years, prompting a lawsuit and a court settlement. "The soaring inmate census has created a crisis here," said Ashbel T. Wall, the state's corrections director. "We've been busting the budget continuously. . . . Our prisons have been packed."


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