SACRAMENTO — As police officers and deputies are being laid off across California, the idea is almost breathtaking: Reduce California's prison population by 27,300 inmates, partly by letting some out of the gates.
The plan, part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's piecemeal effort to balance the budget, is designed to trim corrections spending by $1.2 billion.
But it has rattled the nerves of local law enforcement leaders and crime victim advocates who say the loss of front-line officers has made communities vulnerable. They wonder how the state will keep its vow to release only low-risk offenders and keep tabs on them.
"Let's hope they get it right, shall we?" said Marc Klaas, who became one of California's most prominent crime victims in 1993 when his 12-year-old daughter Polly was abducted and murdered by a convicted kidnapper and robber who was out on parole.
State officials say they will tread carefully. Those released, they say, will be low-risk offenders who have been evaluated to determine whether they can be released safely with GPS monitoring.
Corrections officials said they do not consider the plan to be an "early release" program, because most of the reductions to the inmate population would come through other methods: Nonviolent offenders who violate parole would not automatically be returned to prison; inmates who are not U.S. citizens could be turned over to federal authorities for deportation; and some offenders would remain in county jail rather than end up in state prison.
"I don't think people should be concerned about us opening up the gates and letting the inmates go, because that's not the plan," said Matthew Cate, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
But when word of the plan emerged during budget negotiations last month, one Republican labeled it "radioactive," and legislators are expected to begin tackling the issue immediately upon their return from recess on Aug. 17.
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