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State prisons in ‘tailspin,’ panel says

Times Staff Writer

Three decades of tough-on-crime lawmaking has sent California’s prison system into a “tailspin,” creating the most pressing crisis facing the state, the government’s own watchdog panel declared Thursday.

In a blistering 84-page report, the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission linked the problems plaguing the correctional system to political cowardice among governors and lawmakers fearful of being labeled soft on crime.

If policymakers are unwilling to make bold changes, the commission said, they should appoint an independent entity -- modeled after the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission -- with the power to do it for them.

“For decades, governors and lawmakers fearful of appearing soft on crime have failed to muster the political will to address the looming crisis,” the commission said.

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“And now their time has run out.”

The 13-member commission is an independent agency composed of Republicans and Democrats appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. Since its inception in 1962, the commission has worked to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.

The report, delivered directly to the governor and the Legislature, included suggestions for sentencing reform and other changes, many of them previously offered by the commission and other critics. It broke new ground, however, by bluntly stating that when it comes to corrections in California, political posturing has trumped sound lawmaking.

The state’s 33 prisons are packed to twice their intended capacity, with more than 16,000 inmates bunking in hallways, classrooms and other areas not designed as housing. Prison leaders say they will be out of room for new inmates by summer, and concern about riots is extremely high.

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A federal judge, meanwhile, has given the state until June to relieve the crowding or face a possible cap on the inmate population, now about 172,000.

Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled an ambitious $10.9-billion prison building and reform plan, its fate in the Legislature is uncertain, and most of the proposed solutions would take years to enact.

The governor has a short-term program to ease crowding -- transferring inmates to other states -- but it is faltering because few convicts are volunteering to go.

In October, the commission noted, the governor declared a state of emergency in the prisons: “But even that didn’t bring action, only more reports to federal judges that underscore the fact that the state’s corrections policy is politically bankrupt.”

In an interview, Commissioner Dan Hancock said the report’s unusually harsh tone was designed to highlight the desperate state of affairs, which he said extends beyond crowding to medical and mental health care and a criminal sentencing system the commission called a “haphazard jumble.”

Hancock said the crisis had been caused largely by a ceaseless game of one-upmanship by politicians seeking to burnish their reputations as crime-fighters.

“Each has tried to outdo the other on who could be toughest on crime, but nobody was thinking clearly about what the ramifications would be for the state,” he said. The result is an incoherent penal code dominated by what experts call “drive-by sentencing laws,” often enacted by politicians responding to a single high-profile crime.

The report comes just days after Schwarzenegger and the top Democrat in the Assembly publicly lamented the lack of political will to tackle the problem.

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In an interview with The Times last week, Schwarzenegger said prisons had not been a priority because they were not a “sexy” topic that affects the lives of voters -- and thus had attracted little interest from lawmakers.

“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,’ ” the governor said.

“When the people are not excited about it, how do you make the legislators excited about it?”

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) was more pointed in his comments, blaming legislators for a short-sighted “lock up everybody” mentality that has wrought painful consequences.

“It’s good politically, because you can champion it as you’re tough on crime,” Nunez told a news conference Monday. “But in the end, the prisons are overcrowded, we don’t do enough rehabilitation, the prisoners get out of jail and go back and commit more crimes, we have the highest recidivism rate of any state in the nation.

“It’s a shameful part of the California body politic. We’ve got to change that.”

Whether the rhetoric -- or the commission’s report -- will have any substantial effect on lawmakers is unclear.

Analysts say the political fear of being tagged as a friend of felons runs deep. And voters enthusiastically embrace ballot initiatives seeking to toughen penalties, such as the “three strikes” law of 1994 and the crackdown on sex offenders passed last year.

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“We’re always ever so nice to furry animals and very, very mean to criminals,” said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at UC Riverside. “It’s almost reflexive, the voters’ desire to be tough. If the prisons are a cross between a sewer and the Roman Colosseum, their answer seems to be, ‘Good.’ ”

But some criminologists say the public has been misled about just what sort of policies make the streets safer. At UC Irvine, Joan Petersilia said the “cookie-cutter” approach has put a lot of people in prison but failed to deliver much in the way of public safety.

“I don’t think the public really understands that all this money we’re spending isn’t yielding much in return,” Petersilia said. California, she noted, may spend more than $8 billion a year on corrections -- a 52% increase over the last five years -- but roughly 70% of inmates released by the state wind up back behind bars.

“Everyone agrees we’ve got a crisis, but no one is willing to put forth an agenda and lead,” Petersilia said.

“That’s the key ingredient that’s been missing.”

The Little Hoover report is available at www.lhc.ca.gov/lhc.html.

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jenifer.warren@latimes.com


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