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Prison Reform Plan Falls Short

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sweeping proposal to ease overcrowding and other woes inside California’s beleaguered prison system hit a wall Tuesday as lawmakers said they would reject major pieces of his $6-billion package.

One result: California’s teeming penitentiaries -- already packed to twice their intended capacity -- will run out of bed space by June, officials say, and nobody can agree on a plan to quickly create more room.

Assessing the prospects, Corrections Secretary James Tilton said he would be forced to close prison doors to incoming inmates next summer. Counties with caps on their jail populations probably then would be forced to release inmates, he said.

“I’m out looking for every available bed,” Tilton said in an interview. “It’s a struggle, and I hope the Legislature will reconsider and help us find some immediate relief.”

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Schwarzenegger had proposed two short-term moves to free 9,000 beds: the transfer of 5,000 felons facing deportation to prisons in other states and the use of private facilities to house 4,000 low-security inmates.

Members of the Legislature’s Democratic majority, however, said the mandatory transfers might be unconstitutional. As for the 4,000 private prison beds, it was unclear whether they were even available, lawmakers said.

Legislators described Schwarzenegger’s plans as hastily assembled and lacking basic pieces of information, and asked that the administration flesh them out when lawmakers reconvene in January. Democratic leaders submitted alternative legislation containing parts that they found acceptable.

“It was apparent in the [legislative] hearings that the governor’s ideas weren’t ready for prime time,” said Mike Machado (D-Linden), chairman of the Senate’s committee on the special legislative session on prisons called by Schwarzenegger.

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The special session, concurrent with the regular session, allows lawmakers to bypass many legislative rules and adopt bills more quickly than usual. Any legislation that is approved would take effect 90 days after the session concludes rather than at the beginning of next year.

The Senate and Assembly plan to vote on the legislative package today or Thursday.

Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) joined other lawmakers in criticizing the governor for failing to focus on dysfunctional parole and sentencing laws, which she called the root of overcrowding. Romero also accused him of using the special session as a campaign stunt.

“This special session is show time for the governor,” Romero said. “He wants the blaring trumpets and big hurrahs because there’s an election coming up. He should have dealt with these problems last October when he was warned about the population crisis.”

Lawmakers embraced only one piece of the governor’s package: the transfer of 4,500 nonviolent female inmates -- about 40% of the total number of incarcerated women -- to correctional centers in their communities. Each center would house as many as 200 offenders, providing them with education, vocational training, substance abuse treatment and other services to increase their odds of success after release.

Experts say such a move would be a groundbreaking shift in policy and would reduce the recidivism rate for California’s female offenders, now housed in prisons at Chowchilla, Chino and Norco. Many of the new beds, however, may not be available before 2008.

Corrections -- an $8.6-billion-a-year operation in the throes of a long-running crisis -- became the subject of a special session this month after Schwarzenegger said urgent attention was warranted to alleviate crowding.

The state’s 33 prisons house about 173,000 inmates, with more than 16,000 of them bunked in gyms, hallways and other spaces not intended as living quarters. Projections show that the state will receive 23,000 more felons over the next five years.

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Officials warn that the packed prisons -- staffed by officers stretched thin because of vacancies -- are on the brink of a violent outbreak. Schwarzenegger said a failure to address the crisis could prompt a federal judge to seize the prison system and order the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.

In addition to the shifting of female convicts, the governor’s initial proposal called for $6 billion to build two prisons, expand existing lockups and open mini-prisons -- called reentry centers -- in urban areas for inmates nearing their release dates.

Since then, however, Schwarzenegger has scrapped his plan for new prisons and now embraces a suggestion by the federal receiver in charge of prison healthcare: the construction of medical and mental health facilities for 10,000 inmates.

Legislation put forth by Democrats this week would authorize that move and provide $14 million to design the facilities. The legislation also would provide funding to build space for 5,340 more inmates at existing prisons, design the reentry facilities, and build a new Southern California academy to train correctional officers.

In all, lawmakers propose to fund less than $1 billion of the $6-billion package originally proposed by Schwarzenegger.

In other action Tuesday, lawmakers sent to the governor’s desk bills that would:

* Allow registered domestic partners to file joint state tax returns just as married couples may. SB 1827 by Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) was a priority of gay rights groups and opposed by social conservatives and the California Catholic Conference.

* Require large retail stores to set up in-store recycling programs for plastic bags. AB 2447 by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) requires stores larger than 40,000 square feet to offer places where customers can drop off used plastic bags that the store would recycle.

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* Prohibit school textbooks and instructors from teaching anything that “reflects adversely” on homosexuals. SB 1437 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) originally required textbooks to note gay people of historical significance, but that portion was removed.

* Require remodeled pools to include the same safety features that new pools must have, such as a cover or fence. AB 2977 by Assemblyman Gene Mullin (D-San Mateo) also would add two safety features that would meet those requirements: removable mesh fences and alarms in swimming pools that ring if someone enters the water.


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