Republicans urge cutbacks over freeing inmates early

Girding for a showdown next week over cuts in the state prison system, Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that there is enough fat in the corrections budget to avert any early release of prisoners from state lockups.

The Legislature agreed recently to cut prison spending by $1.2 billion but deferred a decision on how to do it until this month. Lawmakers will return to work Monday following their summer break.

Republicans said a plan by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Democratic support, to reduce the prison population by 37,000 inmates is unnecessary and would send thousands of offenders into neighborhoods before their sentences were completed. The plan includes commutation of some sentences and diversion of many nonviolent offenders to county jails, home detention and community probation programs.

"We believe you can attain those cuts in dollars without any early release program," said Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster). "You can find savings internally."

Some of the governor's proposals, including the use of electronic bracelets to keep nonviolent parole violators on house arrest instead of sending them to prison, are acceptable, Runner said. But the Republicans sketched the outline of an alternative proposal.

While the governor would cut $50 million from the Department of Juvenile Justice by closing one of the six Youth Authority camps and reducing staff, Runner said more than $100 million could be saved in that agency by further cutting excessive staffing.

The savings could reach $250 million or nearly half the juvenile justice budget if only two camps were kept open and offenders older than 18 were separated and not subject to the same expensive services required for minors, Runner said.

The juvenile agency's budget has risen from $379 million a decade ago, when there were 7,761 wards, to $544 million last year, when there were 1,659 wards, according to Republican lawmakers.

An additional $250 million could be saved by making deep cuts in rehabilitation programs, Runner said, charging that they have not worked.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), chairman of the state Senate Public Safety Committee, said he is confident the Democrat-backed plan is good for California and will pass the Legislature even if Republicans remain opposed.

"If we can keep offenders successful in their probation, we . . . keep them from coming back to state prison, thereby lowering the inmate population and saving the state money," Leno said.

Meanwhile, state prisons chief Matthew Cate said Wednesday that it will cost about $6 million to clean up and make repairs after a prison riot at the California Institution for Men in Chino last weekend. Much more money may be needed to rebuild a dormitory that was burned to the ground during the melee, he said.


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