The chronic overcrowding of state prisons may soon be a problem of the past, pending the approval of a proposed legal settlement.

After months of negotiation between state officials, local law enforcement leaders and advocates for inmates, a draft agreement was reached. If approved, the agreement would significantly lessen the number of state inmates without resorting to the early release of convicts. However, the plan would redirect low-risk offenders to local rehabilitation programs and county jails instead of admitting them into the state prison system.

Santa Barbara County is currently facing its own overcrowding problem and is in the process of planning a north county jail to help alleviate the issue. Sheriff Bill Brown, who has been instrumental in the county’s efforts to alleviate the overcrowding, was unavailable for comment about the proposed plan or its potential effects on the county.

The agreement emerged amidst a high-profile federal case concerning California’s overcrowded prisons. If a settlement is not reached in nine days – when the federal judges are scheduled to meet – the case is expected to go to trial. Before the settlement can be finalized, it must first gain the go-ahead from state legislatures as well as some local law enforcement officials.

The agreement would also allow California to maintain control of its prison system, thus avoiding a possible takeover by the federal courts.

Currently, the state prison system houses approximately 171,000 inmates. This number far exceeds the intended capacity of the system, which is under 100,000 prisoners.

The agreement would eliminate tens of thousands of inmates from the prison population by cutting back on the number of inmates who enter for short stays – namely a year or less – and for frequent parole violations.

According to a report by the Little Hoover Commission, the median time served by the nearly 45,000 inmates paroled for the first time in 2005 was less than a year.