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Change in Good Time Makes Tens of Thousands of California Prisoners Eligible for Release

Over 10,000 prisoners serving time under the state’s “three strikes” law for a second serious, but nonviolent crime, became eligible to use credits to secure release after serving half their sentences. Previously, they could only use credits to reduce their sentences by one-third. This same change applies to almost 2,900 nonviolent prisoners serving time for a third strike.

The changes also allow all prisoners assigned to work camps, including firefighting camps, to receive one-month credit toward release for every month spent in the camp regardless of their crime.

“The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons,” said prison system spokesperson Dana Simas. “Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner.”

The emergency regulations, OAL 2021-0408-04EON, are a response to the pandemic, but California’s prison population was in decline before COVID-19. Recently, the decline accelerated, dropping over 21,000 from the pre-pandemic level of 117,000 prisoners. About 10,000 of that is due to recently-convicted prisoners being kept temporarily in county jails due to the pandemic.

There are indications that the reduced prison population may become a permanent feature of the California prison system, which has announced the closure of two state prisons. The Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy is slated for closure in October 2021, while the California Correctional Center in Susanville is to close by July 2022.

The trend toward lower prison populations began a decade ago when county jails began holding lower-level felons instead of sending them to state prisons. The trend strengthened after voters reduced penalties for property crimes in 2014 and approved earlier parole eligibility for most prisoners in 2016. But the latest move is not without criticism.

Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom is “doing it on his own authority, instead of the will of the people through their elected representatives or directly through their own votes,” said Republican State Senator Jim Nielsen, a former head of the parole board. “This is what I call Newsom’s time off for good behavior. He’s putting us all at greater risk and there seems to be no end to the degree to which he wants to do that.”

On May 13, 2021, 41 county prosecutors wrote CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison, requesting that she repeal the earned time ruling. Apparently, that went nowhere because on May 26, 2021, those same 41 county district attorneys filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court claiming the rule enactment process was improperly used. In their lawsuit, prosecutors claim the rule change would lead to the early release of 76,000 CDCR prisoners. They are seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief enjoining the rule from going into effect. See: Schubert v. State of California, Sacramento Superior Court, Case No. 34-2021-00301253. 


Source: Associated Press,

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Related legal case

Schubert v. State of California