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Gov.'s Prison Plan Has Look of Political Move

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised the serious issue of California’s dangerously overcrowded prisons last week. But his timing left many lawmakers rolling their eyes and not taking him seriously.

The whole episode smelled a lot like blatant election-year politics, too cute by half.

For starters, he called a special legislative session on the prison system five days after a federal court investigator issued a scathing report that accused the governor of backpedaling on prison reform. Schwarzenegger’s move smacked of his strategists concocting a “rapid response,” as it is called in the political biz.

His pronouncement -- at a conference of district attorneys in Newport Beach -- kicked off a weeklong series of anti-crime campaigning. It was the week to show that Schwarzenegger is “putting the safety of all Californians first,” his campaign spinners told reporters.

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Schwarzenegger called the special session knowing that the Legislature, within days, would be leaving town for a four-week recess. After he issued his proclamation, the lawmakers yawned and added a fifth week to their vacation, departing Friday.

But don’t blame the legislators. Schwarzenegger didn’t give them any bills to consider.

He offered only concepts: Build two new prisons. Develop community “re-entry facilities” where soon-to-be-released male inmates can get counseling. Place 4,500 nonviolent women in hometown facilities a few months before they’re freed. Streamline contracting, especially for construction.

That’s pretty much it. No specifics. No prison sites. No reentry locales. No real cost estimates.

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The administration hopes to work on all that and present details to legislators when they reconvene Aug. 7 for four weeks.

The governor’s calling the special session got him headlines. But it won’t expedite the process of legislating. The only benefit is that if any bills are passed, they’ll become law 28 days earlier than normal.

“This is Hollywood. This is staging,” says Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on California’s Correctional System.

Last year, Romero was singing Schwarzenegger’s praises after the pair negotiated what many hoped would be the first major step toward reforming a prison system that had been rocked by federal investigations, prisoner abuse, a guards’ “code of silence,” severe overcrowding and a federal judge’s threat to place the institutions in receivership. Romero’s legislation reorganized the department and added the word “rehabilitation” to its name.

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“It just went poof,” the senator says of the reform effort. “He failed.”

That’s pretty much what federal court Special Master John Hagar charged in his report. He also claimed that Schwarzenegger had given the politically potent guards union a “disturbing” amount of clout over prison policy -- and that the governor’s new chief of staff, Democrat Susan Kennedy, had demoralized corrections officials by conspiring with union leaders.

Answering that charge last week, Schwarzenegger told reporters: “We cannot have prison reform without working with the prison unions. They’re not calling any shots. I call the shots. Susan Kennedy doesn’t call the shots. I call the shots.”

Credit Kennedy with reaching out to several public employee unions that Schwarzenegger had alienated last year. They’re almost back on speaking terms with the governor.

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Chuck Alexander, vice president of the 30,000-member guards union, says of Schwarzenegger’s prison agenda: “My gut reaction is that it’s probably not enough and may be too late. But it’s a step in the right direction. We’ve got to do something. We’re severely overcrowded, significantly understaffed and we have a real fear we’re going to lose control of one of these places.”

They fear a riot with hostage-taking. And that’s no doubt another reason Schwarzenegger called the special legislative session: in an effort to show voters that he’s on top of the situation before some prison does explode.

Inmates are stacked virtually like cordwood in some prisons -- 16,000 sleeping in gyms, hallways and even outside. There’s triple-bunking. That means scarce room for rehabilitation, education, exercise and drug treatment. It leads to a 70% recidivism rate, highest in the nation. In all, 171,000 inmates are stashed in lockups designed for about 100,000. There also are 3,000 guard vacancies.

Schwarzenegger’s solution is based on bricks and mortar. Democrats seek reduced sentences; “not on my watch,” the governor says. Both sides want more rehabilitation.

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Gubernatorial aides insist the real purpose of the special session is to shine the public spotlight and focus the legislators’ attention on prisons. They characterize it as a last resort, pointing out that Schwarzenegger in January proposed building new lockups as part of his infrastructure bond plan, but got shot down by legislators. The public wasn’t very keen about spending more money on prisons either, according to polls.

The governor attempted to get budget money for shifting low-risk female inmates to hometown private facilities. But budget negotiators turned him down. Separate legislation to do the same thing was killed Wednesday by the Senate Public Safety Committee.

That bill was sponsored by a Democrat, Assemblywoman Sally Lieber of Mountain View. She’ll try again during the special session.

“We ought to take the governor seriously that he wants to make progress on this issue,” Lieber says, dismissing all the Capitol cynicism.

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“I think if it’s a political thing, we ought to take advantage of it to make real change. I’m just thankful for anybody who’s interested in working for reform.”

That gets back to the adage about good policy making good politics. We’re seeing the politics. We still need the policy particulars.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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