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Plan for female inmates stalls

Times Staff Writer

The Schwarzenegger administration’s widely praised plan to move nonviolent female inmates out of their cells and into neighborhood correctional centers is in peril, a victim of politics and the prison overcrowding crisis.

Experts say the fate of the proposal, which criminologists endorse because it would house the offenders near their families and better prepare them for release, illustrates the difficulty of tinkering with punishment in California.

“This was a no-brainer,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland. “If we can’t succeed in moving these non-dangerous, low-risk women into well-designed community programs, then you have to wonder whether we can accomplish any prison reform at all.”

Former state Corrections Secretary Jeanne Woodford, a champion of the plan before she retired last year, was blunter.

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“Shame on the Legislature,” she said. “Most of these women are mothers, and keeping them in prisons far from their homes punishes thousands of children as well.”

Not long ago, the plan appeared to have a good chance of success. Influential legislators supported it, and GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger included start-up money in his budget.

Scholars, meanwhile, said moving the 4,500 women -- a group limited to those convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as drug or property offenses -- was smart policy. Research shows that women are ill-served in high-security prisons designed for violent men.

But in recent weeks, legislative support for the idea -- even among Democratic lawmakers who once backed it -- crumbled amid opposition from unions and, surprisingly, several advocacy groups for female inmates.

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As a result, a bill that would have given the state corrections department authority to enter into contracts for 2,900 of the community beds failed to muster any support in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Even after its author, Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), amended the bill to remove the beds -- leaving it focused on improving services for women inside existing prisons -- the measure failed Tuesday on a 3-3 vote, with Republicans Greg Aghazarian of Stockton and Joel Anderson of San Diego and Democrat Fiona Ma of San Francisco opposed.

Voting yes were Democrats Jose Solorio of Santa Ana, Hector De La Torre of South Gate and Mark Leno of San Francisco. A fifth Democrat on the panel, Anthony Portantino of La Canada Flintridge, didn’t vote. A majority is needed for the bill to pass.

Efforts to reach those legislators who voted against the bill this week were mixed. Only one, Anderson, returned a phone call from The Times. “We shouldn’t be gambling with taxpayers’ money on untested, unproven programs,” he said.

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Lieber disagreed that her proposal was a gamble, saying it was anchored in research.

She said that in addition to the union opposition, the campaign to change how female inmates are housed has been overshadowed by the general prison overcrowding crisis, which is most dramatic in the male prisons. Three federal judges are considering requests for caps on the inmate population, and the governor and legislative leaders are negotiating a prison reform package to address the problem.

“It’s clear that women are not the drivers in the overcrowding crisis,” Lieber said, “so it’s easy for them to get overlooked.”

A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor does not want that to happen and will push to include the program in whatever deal emerges from his ongoing talks with Senate and Assembly leaders.

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“This is one of the most significant rehabilitation concepts floating around the Capitol, and the governor is very disappointed that it’s not moving forward,” said Adam Mendelsohn, communications director.

Not everyone was lamenting the turn of events.

The unions, representing teachers, psychologists and thousands of other workers in state prisons, had opposed moving women to smaller contract facilities on the grounds that it would lead to privatization of prisons. One letter from Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, said the union would support the plan only if its workers staffed the facilities.

Leaders of several advocacy groups, meanwhile, said that rather than moving nonviolent women to what they dubbed “mini-prisons,” the state should just release them. They called the plan a stealth attempt by the state to expand capacity and incarcerate more people, and presented signatures they said were gathered from thousands of female inmates opposing it.

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“It’s fiscally irresponsible to spend taxpayer dollars to expand a system that’s devastated families across the state,” Vanessa Huang of the Oakland-based group Justice Now said in a statement.

But architects of the program said the plan was the result of nearly two years of work steered by two of the nation’s foremost authorities on female offenders.

They noted that women in the community centers would be allowed visitation with their children seven days a week. Currently, visiting is limited to weekends, and most women do not receive visits because they are in prisons hundreds of miles from their homes.

The new centers would be in counties that send the largest numbers of offenders into the system: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, Fresno, Alameda and Sacramento.

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The neighborhood lockups would also provide inmates with a personalized blend of drug treatment, counseling, job training and other services that few receive now.

The facilities would be much smaller -- housing 75 to 200 inmates, compared with the 3,000 in the state prisons -- and although there would be as many as two state prison officers on duty per shift, the feel and focus would be different, officials said.

Like other states, California has seen a steady increase in its female inmate population and now houses 11,100 women, almost twice the number in 1990. Most are in two prisons in the remote San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla; the rest are at prisons in Chino and Norco in the Inland Empire or at prison camps.

In 2004, the Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog panel charged with overseeing state government operations, published a report calling California’s strategy for female offenders a failure. In response, the Schwarzenegger administration launched plans to remake its prisons with gender in mind.

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Barbara Bloom is one of two criminologists hired by the state to design a program for low-risk female offenders at the community facilities. Bloom, who teaches at Sonoma State, said housing inmates in small-scale settings that are rich in services and near their families is key to “reducing the recycling of women in and out of prison.”

“Unfortunately, this very worthy program has become entwined in the overall politics of corrections reform,” she said. “So we’re back to square one, and I’m afraid these women will get lost in the shuffle.”

jenifer.warren@latimes.com


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