Capitol Alert

New parole rules released as California prisons near court-ordered cap

As the state prison population comes close to exceeding a court-mandated limit, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is pursuing new regulations that aim to get more inmates paroled more quickly over time.

The proposed rules, originating from voter approval of Proposition 57 in November and unveiled on Friday, would allow “nonviolent” felons to first seek parole at the conclusion of the base term for their primary offense, before serving additional time for other charges and enhancements that can add years to their sentence.

The plan also expands the early release credits inmates can earn to reduce their sentences, including doubling to six months the credit for completing a college degree and adding up to one month per year for participating in self-help programs. It still must be approved by the state before taking effect.

“We are creating a situation of hope where there is no hope today,” said Scott Kernan, head of the corrections department.

Prison officials anticipate the new rules will lower the inmate population by more than 520 in the next fiscal year starting July 1 – a necessity because, as of mid-March, California is only 1,500 below a cap set by court order in 2009 to bring the state’s overcrowded prison system under 137.5 percent capacity.

California reached that goal in early 2015 by shifting many offenders to county jails. Ballot initiatives to scale back the state’s “three strikes” law and reduce some drug and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors also helped.

But the corrections department is pursuing further permanent reductions to the prison population, in part so that it can bring back thousands of inmates that were contracted out to other states like Mississippi after the limit was imposed.

“Proposition 57 is necessary for us to avoid court-ordered releases,” Kernan said.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff