State Department of Corrections officials are preparing a new policy directive that will result in thousands of additional early parole discharges for less-serious offenders.
The state Department of Finance has projected as many as 25,000 more early parole releases for the current fiscal year. But the acting director of the corrections agency's parole division said the increase will be considerably less.
Corrections officials, under pressure to find ways of saving millions of dollars in another tight budget year, say the early discharges will present no threat to public safety.
They say only parolees convicted of less-serious, nonviolent crimes who have been trouble-free for a full year of parole would qualify for early discharge under laws that are already on the books.
"These are compliant parolees who have already done their year of supervision satisfactorily," acting parole director Jim L'Etoile said.
But some line parole agents in the state have expressed concern about the early discharges, saying they in all likelihood will result in more crimes being committed by the unsupervised offenders, even if they were originally convicted only for less-serious property or drug crimes.
"The public ought to be concerned," said Chuck Alexander, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents some 2,500 parole agents in the state. "They're going to save a buck today, but tomorrow be damned."
Prior to his removal as director of the parole division, L'Etoile's predecessor, Rick Rimmer, had traveled throughout the state trying to assuage agents' concerns that the plans to increase the number of early discharges could set off a crime wave of sorts.
Some agents and other sources knowledgeable about the parole division who asked to remain anonymous, however, said that while Rimmer thought the state could increase its number of early discharges, he favored a slower approach than the top managers in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Cabinet-level Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.
Rimmer has declined to comment on his ouster, but agency Secretary Rod Hickman in a recent interview said he discussed the issue with Rimmer and that they were in agreement that "we discharge appropriately within the law."
"We've got to comply with the law," Hickman said. "If there are parolees who have met the conditions of their parole and the process is not working, we need to make sure the process is working and review it."
The Department of Finance projects that the modified discharge policy would save the state $59.5 million in spending this fiscal year. Hickman, however, said the plan was not designed as a money-saving measure, and he insisted that it will not compromise public safety.
In fact, parole officials say the policy will enhance public safety by freeing up more supervision time for serious and violent offenders who are out on the streets.
Officials in the state Legislative Analyst's Office who oversee corrections spending in California said that line parole agents have been reluctant to use the law already on the books that enables the state to grant the early discharge to qualifying parolees.
"That is our understanding, that there may be some resistance to this," said Brian Brown, a legislative analyst in the criminal justice unit.
To address parole officers' qualms, L'Etoile said the department's formal directive on the early discharges - to be issued within the next month - will establish criteria for agents to follow. "There's a lot of discretion parole agents will have if they believe the person would be unsafe," L'Etoile said.
The new policy will apply to lower risk offenders and none who were convicted of serious or violent crimes, as defined by the Penal Code, L'Etoile said.
Parole in California is basically a three-year "tail" of supervised release tacked onto offenders' terms once they get out of prison. If they violate the conditions of their release, parolees can be returned to prison for up to a year.
But the Penal Code since 1988 has contained an out for parolees if they stay out of trouble for a year - making all their meetings with their parole officers, testing clean for drugs and abiding by other conditions of their release.
Those offenders can be discharged from parole as early as 13 months from their release - 12 months for the good behavior and one month for the parole division to review their case and have it approved by the state Board of Prison Terms.
In fiscal year 2003-04, a total of 7,810 parolees received early discharge, according to the Board of Prison Terms, whose deputy commissioners must sign off on the cases forwarded to them for review by the parole division.
L'Etoile said the number of early discharges granted this year is running ahead of last year's pace. Even with the new policy, he said the number of early discharges won't double.
Since fiscal year 2001, there has been a 60 percent increase over the 4,524 parolees who qualified then for early discharge, according to figures provided by the Board of Prison Terms.
The Department of Finance is projecting that as many as 25,000 more parolees could qualify for early discharge this current fiscal year and account for the anticipated $59.5 million in budget savings, according to agency spokesman H.D. Palmer.
"Those are the numbers we're carrying," Palmer said.
L'Etoile said the early discharges won't come anywhere near the number projected by the Department of Finance and that the savings will fall far short of the $59.5 million.
Finances' figure represents only the number of parolees eligible for early discharge review, L'Etoile said.
"Not every case that is eligible for that review will be discharged, because of issues of public safety," he said.
Word of the high-level discussions that have been taking place in Sacramento has filtered out to the 101 local parole offices in the state, creating a stir.
"I would agree that we could perhaps do some more discharges than we've done in the past," said Alexander, the union vice president. "But to set a number based on a monetary aspect, which is what I believe they are doing, is a public safety issue."
One agent, in an anonymous posting on a popular Internet Web site for correctional employees, concluded: "Lock your windows, boys and girls."
L'Etoile, however, characterized agents' misgivings as arising out of their uncertainty over the policy, which he said should be alleviated once the formal directive is issued.
"They're operating on assumptions that may not be accurate," L'Etoile said. "I can understand how there would be apprehension and concern if staff doesn't have direction, and we're going to provide that to them."
Voters, meanwhile, introduced a new wrinkle to the issue when they approved Proposition 69. The November ballot measure will require everyone arrested for a felony to undergo DNA testing to see if they match gene samples collected from far-flung crime scenes.
No offenders will get an early discharge from parole, authorities said, until they undergo a DNA test and it turns up negative.
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