The Schwarzenegger administration agreed to a court settlement Tuesday that will keep thousands of nonviolent parole violators out of prison, a move expected to save the state money in years ahead by reducing the population behind bars.
But it promptly stirred the concern of victims' advocates, who fear it might jeopardize public safety.
The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, resolves a 9-year-old class-action lawsuit brought by ex-convicts who claimed California's system for handling parole violators was unconstitutional.
Under the agreement, thousands of parolees who now go directly to jail or prison to await a hearing on their alleged parole violation may instead be diverted to a residential drug treatment center, home detention or electronic monitoring, among other options.
That new approach, to begin in January, would apply only to parolees whose records are free of violent or serious felonies and whose parole violations are considered "administrative." An administrative violation would include a positive drug test or failure to meet with a parole agent as scheduled.
Officials overseeing the change predicted that by 2006, the number of parole violators returned to prison every year in California -- now about 100,000 -- would be cut by nearly a third, saving the state millions and perhaps leading to the closure of a prison.
"Some people will view this as soft on crime, but that's not the case," said Michael Brady, deputy secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency and the lead negotiator for the state. "Instead, we are taking people whose underlying problem is substance abuse and making sure they get help and get the tools they need to become law-abiding citizens."
The settlement comes one week after a state watchdog panel, the Little Hoover Commission, criticized the California correctional system for failing to prepare inmates for release and for recycling parolees in and out of prison.
It also comes on Day 2 of Arnold Schwarzenegger's governorship. Brady said the settlement -- stalled under former Gov. Gray Davis -- proved that the new administration "is about change, about efficiency in government and about doing what's right for the state."
Brady added that had the parties failed to come to an agreement, a judge's order -- issued in July but delayed pending further negotiations -- would have saddled the state with a costly and more difficult remedy.
Lawyers for the ex-convicts who filed the suit praised the settlement as bringing "radical" change to a system that has habitually incarcerated parolees for months without a hearing, at substantial cost to the state.
"This agreement will take a process that has been running out of control and make it fair and effective for both the parolee and the state," said lawyer Donald Specter.
A spokeswoman for one victims group, however, worried that the new approach might jeopardize public safety.
"Let's see what happens to the crime rate," said Maggie Elvey of Crime Victims United. "If they can guarantee us that these violators won't re-offend and hurt someone while they're out, then fine. But they can't."
Also skeptical were officials with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which represents prison guards and parole agents. Lance Corcoran, vice president of the union, worried that agents might be prevented from imprisoning parolees whose violations merit it.
"With some individuals, it doesn't matter what rehabilitative opportunities we provide. They're hell-bent on living a certain [criminal] lifestyle," Corcoran said. "So if the agent doesn't have the ability to re-incarcerate that type of person, is public safety truly being served?"
Under current regulations, ex-felons arrested on suspicion of violating their parole are entitled to a hearing on the charge within 45 days. But because of a backlog, many parolees languish behind bars for twice that or longer before their case is heard.
The pact sets up a new system. Immediately after their arrest, parolees will be screened to determine the seriousness of the violation.
Those not diverted must be provided with a "probable cause" hearing before an administrative judge within 10 business days -- and, in a major change, must be provided with an attorney. Previously, only the mentally ill and a few other categories of parolees were entitled to an attorney.
At the hearing, the parolee will be presented with a proposed deal offering a certain term in prison for the violation. Officials expect 80% of the cases will be disposed of this way -- rather than at a second parole revocation hearing -- thus saving the state money.
"One of the biggest problems with the current system is that parolees often didn't understand the hearing process," said Thomas Patterson, the deputy attorney general who represented the state.
In overhauling how the state treats parole violators, the settlement answers a chorus of criticism. In addition to the Little Hoover Commission's report, the state inspector general's office has attacked the system, reporting that 81% of parolees charged with violations spent longer than the specified 45 days in prison awaiting a hearing.
The inspector general also found that in many cases, by the time parolees made it to their hearing, they had already served as much or more time than the sentence they would receive for their violation.
"I believe that in five years, this settlement will have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, reduced the prison population and prison budget -- without jeopardizing public safety," Brady said.