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Governor blames public indifference for prison ills

Times Staff Writer

Saying that Californians have “lived in denial” about the crisis in the state’s prisons, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday complained that apathy in the electorate is to blame for the lack of will in the Capitol to address the corrections system’s overcrowding and rising costs.

In an interview with The Times, Schwarzenegger offered a blunt appraisal about the political roots of California’s prison troubles. Schwarzenegger said the prison problem is not “sexy,” because it does not affect people’s lives directly, as schools or transportation issues do.

“You talk about prisons, people feel like, ‘OK, go out and get the criminal and you send him somewhere, but wherever that is, I don’t want to look there, I don’t want to know. That’s your problem,’ ” he said. “When the people are not excited about it, how do you make the legislators excited about it?”

The state’s 33 prisons are filled to almost twice their capacity, and a federal judge last month threatened to cap the inmate population if the state does not ease the overcrowding. And prison healthcare services are so inadequate that a federal receiver has been appointed to run them.

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Schwarzenegger has proposed $10.9 billion in new borrowing to expand the prisons, and wants to reexamine the state’s penal code to see if sentences for some crimes are too long.

Schwarzenegger said that when it comes to the subject of prisons, “people have always lived in denial or brushed it under the rug for years,” but that this year Californians have “got to pull it out from under the rug and deal with and just be frank about it.”

He said legislators, who did not act on his proposal to build additional cells last year, were more willing to take action this year because of the threat that the courts will order prisoners to be released.

“So that makes everyone wake up here and say wait a minute, we can’t go to the people and say to them, ‘Look, they’re back, because we failed you,’ ” the governor said.

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In the half-hour interview, Schwarzenegger also said that though he believed his health-care proposal was “very fleshed-out,” he was willing to alter it if doing so would help develop a consensus in the state and the Legislature.

“My job is to be the facilitator and just to bring them together and to paint the nice vision for the future and to say, ‘Here’s where we could be 20 years from now, think about it,’ ” he said, speaking in general about how he views his gubernatorial responsibilities.

Schwarzenegger has proposed requiring all Californians to obtain health insurance, mandating that employers with 10 or more workers spend at least 4% of their payroll on insurance, and proposed levies on hospitals and doctors to help provide subsidies for people too poor to buy their own policies.

He said that before introducing healthcare legislation, he wanted to hold town hall meetings across the state -- as well as sessions with lawmakers and interested parties in Sacramento -- to solicit input.

“I think people feel good if we go out and we explain to them before we start voting here and debating here,” he said.

In an appearance Wednesday before the Sacramento Press Club, Schwarzenegger said he hoped to play a role in the 2008 presidential race by pressing candidates to address important issues such as healthcare, global warming and immigration.

Though he has portrayed himself as a “post-partisan” governor, more interested in the qualities of ideas than the political party where they originate, Schwarzenegger rejected suggestions that he might consider endorsing a Democrat for president.

He said that whatever their party affiliation, people should consider all candidates. For himself, Schwarzenegger said, “I think we have some good Republican candidates that are out there, and so I will look at them very carefully,” he said.

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He reiterated his desire to move the state’s presidential primary to February to give California more clout in the selection process.

“We are the No. 1 state in the union, we’re the No. 1 place in the world, and yet we are kind of an afterthought when it comes to presidential campaigns,” he said. “I mean, all those guys come out here and they clean up [in fundraising], and they take the money and they run; millions and millions and millions of dollars, both parties.”

Asked at the press club whether he would consider refusing to accept donations from health insurance interests while the subject was being debated in the Capitol, he said he did not think it was an issue.

“There will be no favors in return whatsoever on this, because I’m looking for creating the best healthcare reform without thinking now about ... favors to this or to that side,” he said. “That does not come into my mind.”

Asked in The Times interview what political changes he was considering during his second term besides altering the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn to make them less partisan, Schwarzenegger named one proposal: his legislation, which lawmakers did not pass in his first term, to ban fundraising in Sacramento while the state budget is being negotiated.

“It’s a really tough one to pass here,” he said.

jordan.rau@latimes.com


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