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State Plan to Reform Prisons Is Laid Out

Times Staff Writers

Reversing a century-long tradition of allowing California’s prisons to operate as fiefdoms, Schwarzenegger administration officials Thursday unveiled a new model that places one man in charge and aims to reduce crime by better preparing inmates for life on the outside.

Under the plan, prison leaders for the first time in decades would emphasize rehabilitation, marking a shift away from an era when punishment was the overriding mission.

In his State of the State speech Wednesday, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that his first attempt to streamline government would focus on corrections, and vowed that his reforms would make California a national leader.

The proposal targets a $6-billion correctional system that most experts -- inside and outside of government -- have described as in crisis. Over the past year, California’s prisons have been rocked by federal investigations, budget overruns, a videotaped beating of juvenile inmates, audits exposing waste and mismanagement, and a federal judge’s threat to place adult lockups into receivership.

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Since his election, Schwarzenegger has expressed a strong desire to clean up the mess, visiting two prisons and declaring that “the purpose of corrections should be to correct.”

Unlike many politicians, who steer clear of prison issues for fear of being dubbed soft on crime, this governor -- elected on a platform of radical change -- appears determined to make genuine reform part of his legacy, corrections leaders said. He has called the state’s failure to prevent parolees from committing new crimes an unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars and human lives.

But some experts said that while change is sorely needed, the governor’s plan does not go far enough. The powerful prison guards union, meantime, voiced its displeasure at being left out of the reform planning process.

On Thursday, officials revealed the fine print of Schwarzenegger’s sweeping plan, which would topple the old, multi-pronged management structure and replace it with a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The plan was accompanied by a vision statement that, among other things, proposes to reduce crime by better preparing parolees to go straight -- increasing, for example, the amount of education, job training and other help they receive behind bars.

No details of such programs were provided. Nor were cost estimates or an explanation of how the stepped-up rehabilitation effort would be paid for, especially within a department that has overspent its budget by about $200 million this fiscal year.

Officials said they have asked consultants -- including renowned UC Irvine researcher Joan Petersilia -- to identify the most effective corrections programs nationwide and suggest which ones could be tried here.

In the shorter term, Schwarzenegger wants to dramatically reshape corrections management, a step that may seem mundane but, officials say, would set a dysfunctional system on a steadier course.

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The new model would abolish the separate departments that now run youth and adult prisons and centralize control of education, healthcare, drug treatment, parole and other services for young and old convicts alike. Prison leaders say such a move would save taxpayers money by eliminating duplication and improving efficiency.

More significant savings would come, they say, as the new focus on rehabilitation reduced the proportion of ex-convicts who wind up back in prison -- a rate of more than 60%, higher than any other state’s.

“It’s a system in dire need of reform,” said Roderick Q. Hickman, who now holds the figurehead job of corrections secretary but would gain significant new powers under the Schwarzenegger plan.

Hickman, a former prison guard, said California prisons today use “the same management style that was in place when Gov. Hiram Johnson last reformed state government more than a century ago.”

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The reorganization plan now rests with the Little Hoover Commission, a government watchdog agency. The commission will hold a public hearing Jan. 26 and then recommend to the Legislature whether the idea should be adopted or modified.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of a prison oversight committee, applauded Schwarzenegger for “recognizing the extent of the problem and sending the message that overhaul is needed.”

“But does this go far enough?” Romero asked. “We’re on the right track, but ... reform ... has to be a lot more than moving people around.”

At the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the union representing prison guards, Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran called the plan a mere shuffling of furniture.

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“Everybody ... will get new business cards and letterhead, but we made no change at ground level regarding programs and services provided to inmates,” Corcoran said.

He added that the prison guards union -- whose influence on prison policy has been fading under Hickman -- was not involved in developing the plan.

“Hickman says we can get on the train or be left behind,” Corcoran said, referring to a statement the corrections secretary has made about those who resist change. “We have not been given an opportunity to buy a ticket.”

Others called the reorganization laudable, but said that without sentencing reform and a reduction in the state’s inmate population -- now at an all-time high of about 165,000 -- true change, and significant cost savings, will be elusive.

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“The fundamental question is, where are we going?” said Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “If we’re going to a rehabilitation model in California and this is the form that helps get that done, that’s terrific.”

The governor’s action comes after a tumultuous year in California’s correctional system, the nation’s largest. In a series of legislative hearings, along with reports from experts and a federal court investigator, the prisons have been hammered for substandard medical and mental healthcare, out-of-control costs, abusive guards who go unpunished and a host of other ills.

Shortly after taking office, Schwarzenegger vowed to tackle the problems and asked former Gov. George Deukmejian to investigate and suggest reforms. In July, Deukmejian’s team released a report blasting the system and making scores of recommendations about everything from how wardens are picked to how long parole should run.

The report heaped much of the blame on the management structure, specifically a lack of accountability and the tendency of wardens to operate as lone rangers. Many of the report’s ideas are reflected in the Schwarzenegger model, with one key exception. Deukmejian’s group believed the corrections ship should be steered by a civilian commission, appointed by the governor, that would direct policy and provide oversight.

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Joe Gunn, who directed the team, said Thursday, that without such a commission, Schwarzenegger would have a hard time accomplishing reform.

“We believe you need an independent commission that has no ax to grind and is not beholden to anyone,” Gunn said in an interview. “I’m not optimistic that you can change the culture of that organization without having someone on the outside, free of politics, driving reform.”


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