California would avoid having to release thousands of state prison inmates early under a possible federal court settlement announced Monday.

The proposal was announced by federal court referees who have been brokering a settlement between the state, inmate advocates and law enforcement authorities.

At stake if the state ultimately lost the multiple lawsuits it faces was having a panel of federal judges cap the inmate population or order the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.

The potential settlement calls on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to trim the prison population of roughly 170,000 inmates by 2011.

California's 33 state prisons were designed to hold about 100,000 inmates. The overcrowding has been blamed for creating a volatile environment as well as poor inmate health care and mental health services.

A proper target population would be set by a group of experts.
Negotiators said the settlement proposal still could be altered before a May 30 court hearing in San Francisco federal court.

"There has yet to be approval given to this, but we believe it is very close to what the parties can agree to," Elwood Lui, a former state appeals court judge who is one of the referees, told reporters on a conference call.

The state prison population would be lowered through a combination of possible changes. Those include expanding prison programs so more inmates are eligible for early release, seeking alternate punishments for some offenders and putting some parole violators into treatment programs rather than sending them immediately back to prison.

The inmate population target could fluctuate as the state builds more cells or shifts inmates between prisons.

A Prison Population Advisory Committee would be created to monitor the inmate population and advise the corrections department about how to maintain it at acceptable levels. The committee would include representatives from county prosecutors, sheriffs, probation officers, cities, counties and victims rights groups.

State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, who has represented Assembly Republicans in the settlement talks, said he was pleased the proposal includes neither early release nor an end to parole supervision for many ex-convicts.

"When you put it in the context of that alternative, which is early release and chaos, we would certainly support this without a doubt," said Jerry Powers, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. "When faced with a choice with early release or some sort of organized approach to population reduction, I think most of us will take this alternative."

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, president of the state chiefs association, agreed that law enforcement officials had accomplished their top goal through the proposed settlement — avoid the early release.

Law enforcement officials from throughout the state will begin meeting Tuesday to consider the proposal.