Public Commenters Weigh in on Early Release of California State Prisoners

Public Commenters Weigh in on Early Release of California State Prisoners
A California Department of Corrections officer speaks to inmates at Chino State Prison in Chino, Calif., on Dec. 10, 2010. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Vanessa Serna

Amid the pending decision to make it easier for inmates to earn “good conduct credits” for early release, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation took public comment on the issue during an April 14 teleconference in advance of establishing a permanent inmate credit-earning system.

The corrections department is seeking to pass a proposal that would allow state inmates to serve shorter sentences if they participate in firefighting, educational courses, and other rehabilitation programs—an initiative that was created under Proposition 57 passed by California voters in 2016.

The “good conduct credit” program allows sentence reduction for incarcerated individuals who have demonstrated good behavior.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, rules were adjusted to make it easier for inmates to earn credits—allowing those with violent convictions to earn up to a third off their sentence and for non-violent convicts to earn up to half off their sentence, according to the corrections department.

Hundreds of speakers, in response, called in on Thursday morning.

Those supporting included former inmates, family members of those incarcerated, rehabilitation advocates and members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—an organization that strives to end mass incarceration.

Gary Burt, who said he was formerly incarcerated, argued that rehabilitative and education make communities safer, saying that “[he knows] firsthand how important these opportunities are [for inmates to rejoin the society].”

A former inmate who was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison when he was 21, spoke in favor of the early releases arguing that her release and rehabilitation gave her a chance to attend college and change her life.

“Unfortunately, crime [happens], but I don’t believe keeping people in cages will stop the crime from happening,” she said. She detailed in her comments how sexual assualt and drugs within the prison system kept her from moving forward in life.

A daughter whose father was murdered also voiced support.

“You cannot let your mistakes or their crimes define them for the rest of their lives,” she said.

Others, however, blamed the state’s recent rise in crime on gang members, drug users, the homeless, and those formerly incarcerated who they said are struggling due to the rising cost of living.

“People are literally struggling to pay rent, food, [and] everything is skyrocketing through the roof,” one commenter said.

Meanwhile, district attorneys, California State Assembly Members, and victim advocates spoke against the proposal.

“Our children can’t walk to school safely anymore,” one commenter said. “Our homes are being broken into over and over. Vehicles are being vandalized, and we need these people to be put away.”

Assemblyman Jim Cooper (R-Sacramento) spoke to the rise in crime, citing the recent shooter in Sacramento that killed six and injured 12 in Sacramento on April 3 after being released from prison in February despite serving only a portion of his 10-year sentence.

The district attorney of Yuba County, Clint Curry, said the issue of early release “undermines the rule of law” and “endangers” the public.

“By the time a person earns a prison sentence, they have proven that they are dangerous and that they are not amenable to probation,” he said. “When we send someone to prison, it prevents them from victimizing the community.”

A sister of a current felon who was convicted of carrying loaded guns around an apartment complex opposed the proposal and said inmates should serve their full time and then receive rehabilitation.

The corrections department’s recent proposal would establish a permanent plan based on the current rules.