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California Officials Unveil Plan to Reduce State Prison Population

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In this May 20, 2009 file photo, several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San Quentin prison in San Quentin, Calif.AP

The head of California's prison system, introducing his state's plan to reduce chronic overcrowding, claims the most responsible way to comply with a Supreme Court order to shed 33,000 inmates is to divert low-level offenders into the local jails. 

"We're out of time and out of room, and we've got to get this done," Matt Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Tuesday. 

As expected, the state submitted a plan calling for new prisoners arrested on lower-level offenses to be sent to local lockups instead of state prisons. The state was faced with a number of bad options for complying with the court order to reduce overcrowding, and this was pitched as the most responsible. 

Still, some aren't sold on Gov. Jerry Brown's prison realignment plan, worrying about the burden it will put on local communities. 

"The prison plan relies heavily on dumping inmates and parolees into our communities ... putting our citizens at risk for victimizing," Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielson said. 

He and other Republicans in the legislature say they will continue to oppose Brown's tax extension plan that would compensate the counties for the extra costs of housing more inmates in their jails. 

Sheriffs grappling with their own overcrowding issues say the funding is a matter of public safety. 

"You can only put so many people in the jail," said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesman with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. "If the state forces us to take more than we have bed space for, then obviously we'll have to set people free that are probably on the county jail level." 

And that prospect worries victims' rights groups. 

"There are very violent people in the county jails as well," said Nina Salarno, a crime victim herself and board member of Crime Victims United. "We're looking at domestic violence offenders and child molesters coming back out on the streets if we bring back the state prison inmates, and that's just unacceptable." 

But prison officials argue if California doesn't start phasing in a plan, the courts will begin ordering the early release of convicted felons. 

And if Republican lawmakers still refuse to authorize a vote on the tax extension, Cate said, "We're in trouble." 

New prisons are being built, but some legal observers say California officials might cope with the problem in the short term by pursuing more plea deals.

Claudia Cowan currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) San Francisco-based correspondent. She joined the network in April 2008.