Mass inmate release possible in Calif.

By The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering the early release of more than 20,000 low-risk prison inmates from the nation's largest prison system as a way to save money amid a worsening budget crisis, a newspaper reported Thursday.

Only nonviolent offenders would be eligible, and prisoners considered for the program would have less than 20 months left on their terms, The Sacramento Bee reported on its Web site. Sex offenders would not be included.

The governor's office told The Associated Press that Schwarzenegger had not decided to release inmates early and that it was one of many scenarios being considered as the state seeks to cope with a budget deficit estimated at $10 billion to $14 billion over the next two fiscal years.

The governor has not decided what budget proposals he will deliver to the Legislature next month, said Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn. Schwarzenegger had ordered state agencies to make 10 percent cuts ''but has not made final decisions on what those 10 percent cuts will be,'' he said.

The state is also under federal court pressure to relieve severe overcrowding, which has been blamed for serious problems in the prison system's health care delivery and mental health services.

The proposal reported by the Bee would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the state $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Savings could reach $780 million through 2010.

The proposal also calls for eliminating more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of which would involve guards.

An early release of inmates would be a change of heart for Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has steadfastly opposed such a step.

In a radio address in July, he pledged that he would not release any prisoners early, despite severe overcrowding and the threat that federal judges would put limit the inmate population.

As an interim step to relieve prison crowding, Schwarzenegger's administration has contracted with private prisons in other states to take thousands of California prisoners.

David Runnels, undersecretary for operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to comment on the budget proposal. Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the state prison guards union, told the AP that the union had not seen the proposal and would not comment on the report.

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