Gov. calls for prison growth

Times Staff Writers

Trying to avert a possible court takeover of the state prison system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday proposed a multibillion-dollar expansion of state and local correctional facilities and opened the door to sentence reductions for some crimes.

Schwarzenegger’s $10.9-billion plan would add 78,000 beds to state prisons and county jails.

The expansions, which would be paid for largely through borrowing at a time when California is already heavily in debt, could bring relief to Los Angeles County’s badly overcrowded jails. But the county would be required to use about half its new beds to take in low-level offenders and juveniles currently in state facilities.


“We are at the point where, if we don’t clean up the mess, the federal court is going to do the job for us,” Schwarzenegger said. He warned that the courts could “order the immediate release of criminals” and “dig into our general fund” if the state fails to act.

“They will take money away from education and healthcare,” he said. “As governor, I cannot let that happen.”

Earlier in his tenure, Schwarzenegger announced similar reform proposals. Two prison chiefs later quit in succession, saying election-year politics had prompted him to backpedal on his plans.

Then last summer, lawmakers rejected the governor’s program as inadequate. Schwarzenegger’s new plan, with its more ambitious building and a politically risky sentencing review, is also subject to legislative approval.

Most of the $10.9 billion would be used to expand state prisons and county jails. Counties would get funding for 50,000 new beds. Half of them would be set aside for state offenders.

An additional 16,238 beds would be added to existing state prisons. The proposal would also create up to 7,000 beds in new state “reentry” facilities, where inmates and parolees would receive drug treatment and other rehabilitation services that would prepare them for reentering society. Some of the money would also be used to build a new training facility for prison staff and to modernize death row at San Quentin.


About $1 billion would be directed to the court-ordered construction of medical, dental and mental health facilities.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he was intrigued by the governor’s plan but stressed that many details remain to be worked out.

“It’s imaginative. It sounds progressive,” he said. “But a lot of work needs to be done to make sure it’s practical.”

Baca, who said his jails account for about 40% of the inmates flowing into the state prison system, said he hopes to have some influence on how the plan is eventually implemented.

“It’s still kind of early in the process,” he said. “We’re willing to assist the governor in making sure this is a workable plan.”

State Senate Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said that although he sees the governor’s latest plan as an improvement over Schwarzenegger’s previous proposal, “it still needs in-depth analysis and legislative vetting.”


Some activists said the governor’s approach would do little to bring long-term reform to the state’s troubled lockups.

Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents 12,000 state correctional system employees, released a statement declaring the plan “too heavy on the bricks and mortar and too light on rehabilitation and reform.”

The governor’s proposal relies on billions of dollars in borrowing -- using a kind of bond that lawmakers can authorize without voter approval -- as the state faces a budget shortfall of up to $5.5 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The plan also calls for establishing a bipartisan panel of experts to take on the thorny issue of changing sentencing guidelines.

The 17-member commission would include lawmakers, the state attorney general, the corrections chief, a judge and law enforcement representatives. The governor noted that 18 other states have such commissions.

But there are no guarantees that the panel’s recommendations would garner bipartisan support in the Legislature, where Republicans and Democrats have failed to reach accord on the issue for years.

Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), an advocate of tough sentencing laws, said that although he is optimistic about the governor’s plan, changing sentencing guidelines “is a challenge” for Republicans. Runner said GOP lawmakers are concerned that the creation of a “sentencing commission ... is code for less time in prison.”


Schwarzenegger said he would reject any proposals to alter California’s three-strikes law.

Schwarzenegger unveiled his plan at a time of mounting crisis in the sprawling prison system, which houses more than 173,000 inmates in 33 penitentiaries -- most of them packed to twice their intended capacity. The overcrowding problem, long in the making, has forced officials to jam more than 16,000 inmates into hallways, gyms, recreation lounges and other “ugly beds,” or those in places not intended as housing.

In October, Schwarzenegger declared an emergency in the prisons, saying crowding had created conditions of extreme peril for officers and inmates alike. The governor said the crisis had forced him to begin sending convicts to private and government lockups in other states.

So far, 118 inmates have been shipped out of state, to Tennessee and Arizona. The prison guards union has sued the governor over the moves.

Another lawsuit has been filed by attorneys for convicts seeking to cap the prison population. If successful, it could mean a halt to new admissions or the early release of inmates. The suit says crowding has become so severe that it amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Sacramento ordered the administration to address the crowding crisis or face the prospect of a population cap imposed by the courts.

Many other woes beset California’s prisons. Their healthcare program is under the control of a federal receiver, and mental health care for inmates is overseen by a special master and a federal judge.


Lawsuits have led to court oversight in three other areas as well: the care of disabled prisoners, the care of juvenile offenders and the employee disciplinary system.

Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), a longtime advocate of expanded rehabilitation programs in the state prison system and chairwoman of a legislative committee that oversees corrections, stood with the governor as he unveiled his proposal. Romero said she was optimistic that Schwarzenegger’s plan would help foster the kind of reforms she seeks.

“We have historically paid little attention to what happens after [inmates] get that $200 and the bus ticket out,” she said. “We will never merely build ourselves out of this problem.”

Little of the new spending the governor is proposing would be used for rehabilitation.

Officials of the guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., urged the governor and lawmakers to proceed carefully in designing new prisons.

“We are very good in California at building prisons for punishment and isolation,” said union lobbyist Lance Corcoran. “We need to rethink the design of facilities before we rush to create beds.”

Schwarzenegger said that expanding capacity at the prisons would allow the state to focus on implementing such ideas, instead of worrying about how many inmates it can crowd into each facility. The governor said he finds it unacceptable that California has the highest recidivism rate in the nation and that reducing that rate is a priority for his administration.


“Imagine: Out of 10 people that get out [of prison], seven come back in,” Schwarzenegger said. “We can do better.”


Times staff writers Scott Glover and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.