By Peter Daut

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Thousands of California prisoners can now get out early by taking part in self-help programs behind bars. It’s the latest controversial step to cut the state’s prison population.

Inmates who earn a college degree could reduce their sentence up to six months. Those who take part in self-help programs, including parenting classes, anger management and substance abuse support groups, could trim off a month each year of their sentence.

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The changes are aimed at lowering the prison population by about 7 percent.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s labor union called the plan “alarming” and “dangerous” while others, who have loved ones in prison, said it’s the right thing to do.

Carlos Martinez credited self-help programs with turning his life away from crime. “I believe everybody needs a chance in life,” he said. “If no body addresses the issue, then they don’t know which way to go when they leave those gates.”

Virtually, any inmate, except those on death row or serving life without parole would be eligible to earn credits to reduce their jail time.

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The goal is to cut California’s prison population by 9,500 inmates in four years.

“What about the victims, does anybody care about them because potentially there’s 9,500 victims that were involved in this. And also nobody’s got their voice,” said Craig Lally, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “Why do you have to let them out early? They were supposed to do a sentence for a crime, for the bad actions that they did. And there’s no accountability.”

He said the change will release dangerous offenders, sometimes years earlier, than called for in their sentences.

The proposed change follows the passage of Proposition 57, which lets certain felons seek parole more quickly and gives corrections officials more discretion to grant credits for early release.

Supporters like Martinez said the goal is to encourage inmates to do something productive behind bars. “You get to know yourself, and you are a better person,” he said.

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The earlier release credits would be phased in starting in May while a public review is underway.