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Deal could halt early release of inmates in Calif.

A proposed court settlement would move some inmates in California's overcrowded prison system into treatment programs or alternatives like electronic monitoring and community service instead of them being released early.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A proposed court settlement announced Monday would move some inmates in the nation's largest state prison system into treatment programs or alternatives like electronic monitoring and community service, but would avoid the early releases of tens of thousands of prisoners.

The proposal was announced by federal court referees who have been brokering a settlement between California, inmate advocates and law enforcement authorities. It still could be changed before a May 30 hearing in San Francisco federal court.

At stake if the state ultimately lost the multiple lawsuits it faces was having a court cap the inmate population or order that many inmates be released early.

California's 33 state prisons were designed to hold about 100,000 inmates. They now hold roughly 170,000, and the overcrowding has been blamed for creating a volatile environment, and contributing to poor inmate health care and mental health services.

The proposal calls on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to trim the inmate population by 2011. The target figure would be set by a group of experts.

"There has yet to be approval given to this, but we believe it is very close to what the parties can agree to," referee Elwood Lui, a former state appeals court judge, told reporters on a conference call.

State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, who has represented Assembly Republicans in the settlement talks, said he was pleased the proposal includes neither early release nor an end to parole supervision for many ex-convicts.

"We are reviewing this as a potential comprehensive framework for resolving the prison overcrowding crisis and as an effective solution to protect public safety," said Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Law enforcement officials will begin meeting Tuesday to consider the proposal.

Alternatives to early release
The prison population would be lowered through a combination of possible changes. Those include expanding prison programs so more inmates are eligible for early release, seeking alternate punishments for some offenders and putting some parole violators into treatment programs rather than sending them immediately back to prison.

Counties would get state grants to help create the alternatives, which might include electronic monitoring, longer sentences in county jails, "shock" incarcerations of a few days or weeks or community service.

The settlement talks grew out of a series of federal lawsuits filed against the state by inmate advocates over the years. Most of those complaints arose from the overcrowded conditions.

A three-judge panel to oversee the consolidated cases was created last year and ordered the settlement talks.