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California Female Prisoners Eligible for Early Release, but Disqualified Due to Lack of Local Rehabilitative Services

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Plata v. Brown, mandating that California take immediate steps to reduce prison overcrowding, state officials have proposed innovative ideas to help accomplish that goal.

One such idea, put forth by state Senator Carol Liu, was subsequently passed by the California legislature. Liu’s bill (SB 1266) created a program that allows for the early release of female prisoners, pregnant prisoners and prisoners “who were primary caregivers of dependent children immediately prior to incarceration” if they were convicted of offenses that are deemed non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual under California law, and have less than two years remaining on their sentences and no history of escapes.

Under the initiative, called the Alternative Custody Program, qualifying prisoners would be required to live in either a sober living treatment facility, a transitional home or at their own legal residence (effectively under house arrest). They would be electronically monitored and, like other parolees, would report to parole officers. Full requirements for the program are set forth at California Penal Code § 1170.05.

Of the more than 9,500 women incarcerated in California’s prison system, state officials estimate that roughly half are eligible for the program but only around 500 will be approved for early release. Why the much lower number? Insufficient rehabilitative services in the communities to which the prisoners will return.

Dana Toyama, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, explained. “They [eligible prisoners] have to be released to their county of last legal residence, and they have to have some sort of rehabilitative program to go to.”

She added, “We do have inmates that want to do this, just nothing available in their community.”

According to Barry Krisberg, Director of Research and Policy at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, only a few of California’s 58 counties have devoted sufficient resources to providing community-based rehabilitative programs.

“The statistics would argue that recidivism rates are going to be low if we can give [parolees] some treatment services,” Krisberg said. “This will work in some places because you have a critical mass of people that want to innovate: prison less, community more. But there’s just a dozen of them at best.”

Thus, despite the state legislature’s best intentions, many female prisoners, although otherwise eligible, will not be able to obtain early release. In fact, by January 2012 only 10 prisoners had been released under the program. And while the law was written in a way that does not exclude male prisoners who were the primary caregivers of dependent children prior to their incarceration, the Alternative Custody Program has only been extended to female offenders. State officials said male prisoners might be eligible in the future.

“Right now, we are not offering it to them, but they can’t be statutorily excluded. We just don’t have the resources to offer it to male inmates,” said Toyama.

Nor is everyone happy about providing the early release program to female prisoners. “If they were such great mothers to begin with, they never would have committed the heinous crime that got them sent to state prison,” remarked Harriet Salarno, founder of Crime Victims United.

Sources:, Los Angeles Times,,

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