Prison plan ignores major issues
The Legislature on Thursday passed a sweeping spending package to ease overcrowding in California prisons but did not tackle several problems that experts say are driving the long-running crisis.
While lawmakers celebrated their vote to add 53,000 beds to the state corrections system and boost rehabilitation for inmates, critics beyond the Capitol worried that other ideas left out of the $7.4-billion deal might be sidelined for good.
For example, the package excluded any effort to deal with the state’s discredited parole system. Also omitted was a commission to review California’s Byzantine sentencing laws.
A third proposal that has drawn particularly high marks from criminologists -- to move 4,500 nonviolent female offenders out of prison to correctional centers near their homes -- was missing from the agreement as well.
“This is a deal about practical politics and beds,” said Franklin Zimring, a professor and corrections expert at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. “So it’s going to satisfy the Sealy mattress company, and that’s about it.”
John Lum, a former county probation chief who now lobbies for prison reform, agreed and said the deal would do little to control the rising inmate population or the ballooning costs.
While the package met with enthusiasm in the Assembly, where it passed without debate or a single no vote, some members of the Senate were clearly unimpressed. Conservatives were the most vocal, criticizing the deal because it commits the state to billions in borrowing and spending during lean times.
“In keeping with this casual approach to our state’s finances, there is absolutely nothing in this measure to contain costs,” said Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).
The true cost of the $6.1 billion in lease revenue bonds at the heart of the deal could reach $15 billion, including financing, with no voter approval required. About $1.2 billion would come from California counties.
“I find it very troubling that we’re still acting so recklessly even as we watch our state’s financing deteriorate so rapidly,” McClintock said.
After an initial vote in the Senate, the bill fell short of the two-thirds majority it required. Later, Sen. Gloria Negrete-McLeod (D-Chino) switched her no vote to yes to push the measure through, 27-10.
The voting followed hours of feverish but ultimately futile lobbying by the prison guards’ union, which said the package would endanger its 31,000 members by adding more beds at prisons that are plagued by violence and severely understaffed.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) acknowledged the danger to officers and said he was supporting the package with “grave reservations,” skeptical that it would improve the troubled prisons.
“There’s not a Democrat here this morning who likes this bill,” Perata said.
He added, however, that politicians were forced to act because federal judges are considering population caps to ease overcrowding. Hearings on that issue are set for June, and lawmakers hope the package will dissuade the judges from stepping in.
Inside Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, optimism reigned. He called the bipartisan deal a “giant step forward for public safety.”
“With this agreement we will expand our prisons ... so the dangerous criminals will be kept locked up where they belong, and inmates who want to turn their lives around will be given a chance to do so,” he said.
The governor said the plan would not only reduce overcrowding now but also handle an expected increase in the prison population -- forecast to hit 190,000 by 2012.
The state’s 33 prisons now house about 172,000 men and women in space designed to hold 100,000. Roughly 18,000 sleep in “ugly beds” stashed in hallways, recreation rooms and other areas not intended as housing.
In October, Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons, saying crowding had created conditions of extreme peril for staff and convicts. In recent weeks, he and legislative leaders from both parties have been haggling over a response to the crisis.
Democrats, the majority party, refused to accept new prison beds unless there was a substantial investment in rehabilitation programs.
Republicans were wary of any tinkering with sentencing laws and were reluctant to apply alternative sanctions for parole violators or allow any offenders to leave prison before the end of their terms.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said there was a lot for everyone to like in the final package and praised lawmakers for relying on “our best thinking” to reach a compromise rather than drawing lines in the sand.
Mike Villines of Clovis, the Assembly Republican leader, said the bipartisanship that produced the bill signaled the likelihood of fruitful work on other issues to come.
As for those issues still unaddressed, the governor said at a news conference that everything remained in play.
“To me it’s always important that we put everything on the table and not have a closed mind about anything,” he said.
But analysts predicted that momentum for the other proposals, viewed as politically risky by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, would fizzle given the breadth and expense of the package approved this week.
Legislation to carry out the shift of female offenders already has perished in an Assembly committee. Backers now say the only hope is to include the program in the governor’s revised budget, to be released in May.
A proposal to create an independent commission that would have the authority to alter criminal sentencing laws is moving through the Legislature, but Schwarzenegger wants a panel that is advisory only.
As for the tens of thousands of parole violators who cycle in and out of California prisons each year, few legislators seem ready to champion changes in how they are managed. Other states have reduced their prison costs and populations -- and recidivism rates -- by punishing such violators at the community level. No such program exists in California.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.