SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With little notice, California on Saturday is increasing early release credits for 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, as it further trims the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system.
More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017.
That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.
More than 10,000 inmates convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense under the state’s "three strikes" law will be eligible for release after serving half their sentences. That’s an increase from the current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.
The same increased release time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers, the corrections department projected.
Also as of Saturday, all minimum security inmates in work camps, including those in firefighting camps, will be eligible for the same month of earlier release for every month they spend in the camp, regardless of the severity of their crime.
The changes were approved this week by the state Office of Administrative Law, with little public notice. They were submitted and approved within a three-week span as emergency regulations.
"The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons," department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement.
"Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner," she said.
She provided the emergency regulations and estimates of how many inmates they will affect at the request of The Associated Press, but the department otherwise made no public announcement.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims, said the notion that the credits are for good behavior is a misnomer.
“You don't have to be good to get good time credits. People who lose good time credits for misconduct get them back, they don't stay gone,” he said. "They could be a useful device for managing the population if they had more teeth in them. But they don’t. They're in reality just a giveaway."
Generally, inmates shouldn’t be released any earlier, he contended.
The inmate population has dropped by more than 21,000 from the roughly 117,000 in state prisons before the coronavirus pandemic, though partly because about 10,000 prison-bound inmates have been held temporarily in county jails.
Officials announced in mid-April that they will close a second prison as a result of the dwindling population, fulfilling a promise by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
California Correctional Center in Susanville will close by July 2022, while officials announced last fall that Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, east of San Francisco, will close by this October.
But the population has been declining for a decade, starting when the state began keeping lower-level felons in county jails instead of state prisons to relieve crowding.
The trend continued when voters in 2014 reduced penalties for property and drug crimes and two years later approved allowing earlier parole for most inmates.
Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who once headed the state parole board, criticized Newsom for this time acting unilaterally.
"He's doing it on his own authority, instead of the will of the people through their elected representatives or directly through their own votes," Nielsen said. "This is what I call Newsom’s time off for bad behavior. He's putting us all at greater risk and there seems to be no end to the degree to which he wants to do that."
Simas said the department was granted authority through the rulemaking process. The emergency regulations take effect Saturday, but the department must submit permanent regulations next year, which will be then be considered with a public hearing and opportunity for public comment.
Newsom faces a recall election this fall driven in part by those upset over his handling of the pandemic, including sweeping orders that shut down the economy for months.
But many Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups have been calling for further releases or shorter sentences. Californians United for a Responsible Budget, for instance, earlier in April said the state should shutter at least 10 more of its 35 prisons.