California plan to free immigrant inmates raises questions

The Sacramento BeeJune 8, 2009 

Juan Pedro Panuco said he and other immigrant inmates at Folsom State Prison have heard that California is so cash-strapped, some of them could get sprung early and then deported.

"Some of them are excited," said Panuco. He's not.

At 36, he's been in California since he was 18, is married to a legal U.S. resident and has three small children. He is nine months into a 13-month sentence for selling drugs.

Panuco may not want it, but the Mexican inmate is likely a prime candidate for early release under a cost-cutting plan on the table now from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a $24.3 billion budget deficit.

How broadly the plan can be applied and how much it can really save is in question.

The governor's Finance Department estimates $182 million in savings if the state were to release for deportation about 8,000 of the 19,000 identified undocumented prisoners.

But that projection appears overly optimistic: Finance and legislative officials say that only about 1,400 undocumented prisoners fit the profile of an inmate whose sentence can be commuted by the governor. And springing 1,400 inmates saves only about $32 million. That's out of the $10 billion the state spends to house a total inmate population of about 168,000.

To be eligible for a commutation by the governor, an inmate must have just one felony conviction, for a crime that is not violent or sexual, and is not on a list of other disqualifying crimes.

Another 4,000 undocumented prisoners convicted of more than one nonviolent, nonsexual felony also could be eligible – but only if a majority of California Supreme Court justices agrees to it, officials said.

To read the complete article, visit www.sacbee.com.

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