California inmates won't be set free soon

By Sheyanne Romero
USA Today Network

Many Californians believe that as of Saturday thousands of inmates were released from state prisons. 

That's not the case. 

There is some truth to the rumors, though. 

A new state rule took effect on Saturday but it will be months or years before any inmates go free earlier. Corrections officials say the goal is to reward inmates who better themselves while critics say the move will endanger the public.

“The expansion of Good Conduct Credits is not an early release program, and these changes do not result in the automatic release of any incarcerated individual," department spokeswoman Dana Simas stated in a social media post. "Under the statute, incarcerated individuals are able to receive credits for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation program."

Under Proposition 57 — passed by voters in 2016 — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has the authority to provide opportunities for inmates to receive Good Conduct Credits.

It's estimated that 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, are eligible for early release as the state aims to further trim the prison population. 

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.

How do Good Conduct Credits work?

Under the new regulations, credit-earning for people convicted of violent crimes will increase from 20% to 33.3%. Inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes will increase from 33.3 to 50%.

The credit will be applied to the calculation of the inmate's Earliest Possible Release Date (EPRD) or Minimum Eligible Parole Date (MEPD). People sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole are not eligible to earn credits. 

Under the change, more than 10,000 prisoners 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 department projected.

The department submitted regulations to increase the rate of Good Conduct Credits for public comment. The change was also approved in the 2020-21 state budget. The regulations are still subject to final approval and the public can still give input. 

Why are these changes happening now?

Once was the nation’s largest state correctional system, California has been reducing its prison population for more than a decade. 

In 2006, California's prison population reached an all-time high — 160,000. Inmates were being housed in gymnasiums and activity rooms. A court order was issued demanding the state work to decrease that number. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court backed federal judges’ requirement that the state reduce prison overcrowding.

One way CDCR did that was by incentivizing inmates to participate in rehabilitative and educational programs. Not only would participating in these programs fast-track their release but it also helped reduce recidivism.

"Our department’s focus is on a person’s rehabilitation and accountability in a manner that is consistent with public safety," department officials stated. 

What other action has been taken to decrease the state's prison population?

Fewer inmates means fewer facilities.

Over the last two years, the department has closed or left a number of contracts with for-profit detention facilities in an effort to decrease its prison population. 

Most recently, the department announced it would close the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville by June 30, 2022.

The prison serves as a hub for inmate firefighters who are trained for placement into one of 14 Conservation (Fire) Camps in Northern California. Those fire camps will now be part of the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown and will continue supporting local, state, and federal agencies responding to fires, floods, and other natural or manmade disasters, according to CDCR.

There are an estimated 2,064 inmates housed at CCC. The facility employs 1,080 staff. The closure of CCC means the department will save an average of $122 million a year.

“The significant decrease in the state’s incarcerated population over the past year is allowing CDCR to move forward with these prison closures in a thoughtful manner that does not impact public safety, and that focuses on the successful reentry of people into communities once they release from our custody,” CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison said. "While these decisions are never easy, they are opening the door for the department to increase efficiencies as California continues to focus on reentry and rehabilitation efforts.”

This is the second prison slated to close in the coming year, with Deuel Vocational Institution slated to be deactivated by Sept. 30. The closure of two state prisons was included in Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2020-21 Budget, and is aligned with public safety as well as a decreased incarcerated population.

In addition to the closure of CCC, the secure Level I facilities at California Correctional Institution (CCI) in Tehachapi and Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad will close by June 30, 2022, due to population reduction.

These closures are estimated to save an additional $45 million annually.

In 2019, CDCR took the major step of successfully returning all people incarcerated out-of-state in private, for-profit prisons, in addition to closing the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility (MCCF), a contracted in-state private, for-profit prison. In 2020, CDCR ended its final three contracts with private, for-profit prisons, including Desert View MCCF, Golden State MCCF, and the McFarland Female Community Reentry Facility.

In 2020, CDCR exited two of its three publicly contracted facilities, including Delano MCCF and Shafter MCCF. The department will exit the Taft MCCF by May 31.

The last time California closed a state prison was the Northern California Women’s Facility in Stockton in 2003.

Don Thompson of the Associated Press contributed to this report.