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Parole holds key to California prison overcrowding

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It was partly in response to that order that California lawmakers passed a prison reform bill this month.

Efforts to change the state's parole system have met fierce resistance for years from tough-on-crime advocates, says Ms. Petersilia. This time, too, concerns about relaxing parole rules were raised after the arrest of Phillip Garrido, a convicted sex offender and parolee, for the abduction of Jaycee Lee Dugard.

But the state now faces a perfect storm of problems surrounding its system of incarceration: a federal lawsuit, a fiscal crisis crippling its economy, and public opinion that has slowly been shifting away from rigid sentencing laws.

And in August, just four days after the judicial order, 55 inmates were injured and a dormitory burned down in a prison riot in Chino that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blamed on overcrowding.

No parole for low-risk criminals

Following the passage of the prison reform bill Sept. 11, state prison officials submitted a more ambitious plan to reduce overcrowding to the federal judicial panel. Even this doesn't go as far as the court wanted in cutting inmates – just 18,000 over two years versus 40,000.

But the prison bill does introduce parole reforms that have been long called for.

The crux of these reforms lies in reserving active parole supervision for only the most violent offenders. Instead of a system in which even the least violent offenders are put under some sort of supervision, low-risk criminals will now be placed on "banked parole," which means they can still be subject to warrantless searches by police but are not under regular supervision.

Also, parolees will be less likely to be sent back to prison if they commit a "technical" violation, such as failing a drug test. Instead, many will be sent to community-based programs.

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