Corrections officials prepared to sign the first contract allowing prisoners to be shipped to other states Thursday as legislators debated the plan’s merits and one expert said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should forget short-term fixes and instead convene a bipartisan summit on punishment in California.
One day after the governor proclaimed an emergency in the state’s severely overcrowded prisons, Republicans praised Schwarzenegger for decisive action while Democrats raised legal questions about the move and accused the governor of sitting by while the crisis escalated.
For his part, Schwarzenegger’s Democratic foe, Phil Angelides, said: “For nearly three years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ignored California’s prison crisis. Three months ago, I proposed declaring a state of emergency to fix Gov. Schwarzenegger’s prison mess.”
Although the first round of relocations -- starting with 200 inmates next month -- will be voluntary, prison officials said the governor’s emergency order gives them authority to move convicts against their will as needed to free up beds. Currently, the penal code requires an inmate’s consent for such an out-of-state move.
Corrections Secretary James Tilton said he hoped to quickly get volunteers to vacate 5,000 beds, noting that more than 19,000 had expressed interest in a recent survey. But if enough volunteers do not come forward, Tilton said, the dire conditions will compel him to export inmates without their consent.
Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) said sending inmates to private prisons in other states represented a last resort by a governor facing a crisis. Prison officials say they will be out of bed space by next summer and would have to close their doors to new felons, further burdening beleaguered county jails.
“The governor’s preference was to have the Legislature work with him on this to solve the issue,” Spitzer said, referring to a special session on prisons that ended in August with the Democratic-controlled Assembly’s rejection of several measures to relieve crowding. “He gave us that opportunity and we blew it.”
But state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said that by allowing mandatory transfers, Schwarzenegger was “snubbing his nose at the law.”
Barry Krisberg, president of the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said Schwarzenegger had little choice.
“The Third World conditions inside the prisons have created such a dangerous situation that, short of putting up tents in the desert, there wasn’t much he could do,” Krisberg said.
“The Assembly clearly dropped the ball by refusing to adopt a sensible package of proposals,” Krisberg said.
One law professor who has written extensively on prisons urged Schwarzenegger to think more broadly about the problem.
Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, said that although the transfer plan might buy the state time, it ignores fundamental problems with California’s sentencing laws and penal policies -- problems that have helped foster the population crunch.
“What we need to do,” Zimring said, “is sit down and put the entire governance of punishment in California on the table for an extensive, bipartisan analysis and fixing.”
In Indiana, California’s move to export its convicts was met with enthusiasm. Gov. Mitch Daniels issued a statement gleefully announcing that he would soon be housing 1,200 California felons.
In California, corrections officials confirmed that Indiana’s New Castle Correctional Facility would be among those lockups likely to soon receive inmates. Others are in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona. All facilities are operated by private companies. Officials said the cost of housing Californians in other states would run about $60 per day, compared with the $90 daily cost here.