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Legislature To Free 17,000 Prisoners

The state legislature passed a bill that would open cell doors for 17,000 prisoners as a way to reduce California's budget by $300 million. The deal, part of a compromise that back-stepped away from a more-radical proposal to revamp sentencing and let even more prisoners finish their time outside correctional facilities, still needs Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature.

Clearly, the state needs to cut corners in order to approach break-even. But that fact won't satisfy local voters shocked by the abduction and killing of Lily Burk, allegedly by a suspect who could have been spending time behind bars under three strikes instead of on the streets of Koreatown.

The July homicide, in fact, helped to highlight legislators' plans to let even more prisoners walk. Still, Schwarzenegger is under federal pressure to reduce state prison populations by 40,000. A federal panel of judges argues that the system's overcrowded conditions are inhumane. Signing this bill is one way for the governor to begin to meet the feds' demands.

It's a hot-button issue on both sides of the isle. Nobody wants to see what happened to Lily Burk happen again. Under the law, prisoners who have reached certain rehabilitation milestones will get greater credit toward release, local counties will see more money and responsibility for parolees who would have otherwise been imprisoned, and sentences for many property crimes will be reduced.

"While I am disappointed we were not able to pass a more comprehensive solution that includes a sentencing commission and alternative custody, these changes are a common sense first step in addressing our stretched parole system and the federal intervention in California's criminal justice system," states Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.