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California may free 9,500 inmates in 4 years under new rules

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Corrections officials announced new criminal sentencing rules on Friday that are projected to trim California's prison population by 9,500 inmates over four years.

They include steps like reducing inmates' sentences up to six months for earning a college degree and by up to a month each year for participating in self-help programs such as alcohol and substance abuse support groups and counseling, anger management, life skills, victim awareness, restorative justice and parenting classes.

Virtually any inmate except those on death row or those serving life-without-parole sentences would be eligible to earn the credits and lower their sentences.

It's the latest step in a years-long drive to dramatically lower the state's prison population in response to federal court orders stemming from lawsuits by prison advocates and pressure to turn away from mass incarceration.

The proposed changes follow voters' approval of Proposition 57 in November. The initiative lets certain felons seek parole more quickly and give corrections officials broad discretion to grant early release credits.

"I think that it's a monumental change for the organization and I think across the state, across the nation, I don't think that anybody has altered how they are incarcerating offenders as much as what Prop. 57 does," Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan told The Associated Press.

The goal, he said, is to encourage inmates to start "doing something with their incarceration and not just sitting on their bunks."

The changes in parole eligibility would take effect April 12 if they win initial approval from state regulators, with final approval possible by October after a public comment period. The earlier release credits and earlier parole consideration would be phased in starting May 1 while the public review is underway.

Police and particularly prosecutors fought the ballot initiative, arguing that it will release dangerous offenders sometimes years earlier than called for in their sentences. It also will put convicts more quickly into county probation systems that already are stretched.

Kernan said he took some of the objections into account, for instance by barring sex offenders and third-strike career criminals from seeking earlier parole.

Under the changes, prosecutors and victims would have 30 days to object in writing to the earlier paroles. It's a much different process than the hours-long hearings used to consider parole for life-term inmates such as followers of cult leader Charles Manson, for instance, and the governor would have no role in the largely administrative decisions.

The truncated review remains the top concern for the California District Attorneys Association, said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, the group's president.

Inmates sit and stand in their cell at California State Prison near Folsom, Calif. California corrections officials say they are adopting new sentencing rules that aim to trim the state prison population by nearly 9,500 inmates after four years. The regulations released Friday include steps like reducing sentences up to six months for earning a college degree and by up to a month each year for participating in self-help programs like drug counseling. [AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File]