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State prisons get yet another leader

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named a prison watchdog and former prosecutor on Tuesday to lead the state’s troubled corrections agency as it copes with rampant overcrowding, federal court oversight and a massive construction program.

Matthew Cate, 41, head of the Office of the Inspector General and a former deputy state attorney general, will replace James Tilton, 59, who announced his retirement, citing health reasons, effective May 16. Cate becomes Schwarzenegger’s fourth corrections secretary since the governor took office less than five years ago, and said he hoped to close the revolving door.

“This mission is where my heart is,” Cate said at a news conference Tuesday. “Public safety has been my career because I care about it, and I plan to stay in the job as long as the governor will have me.”

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation represents a huge swath of California government, with a proposed $11.8-billion budget and 67,000 employees. It runs 33 adult prisons, oversees ex-convicts on parole and manages youth prisons, among other responsibilities.

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Until four years ago, Cate had supervised a team of prosecutors at the attorney general’s office and focused on public corruption cases. The inspector general’s office audited the prison system, evaluating the performance of wardens, and analyzed high-profile incidents, including what Cate called the state’s improper release of an inmate from San Quentin State Prison who stabbed a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco the next day.

“If the governor asked me who’s the most qualified, best person in the whole state to take on this enormous challenge, I would say Matt Cate,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency, in Oakland. “I think he’s been capable of getting to the heart of the matter and clearly communicating issues without inflated rhetoric. He’s not a guy who comes in and gives big speeches. He’s a guy who gets things done.”

Cate, whose salary will be $225,000, the same as Tilton’s, has 30 days to take the oath of office and up to a year after that to win state Senate confirmation.

Tilton, who was appointed two years ago, brought a background in finance and administration to the agency’s top job after the relatively short tenures of his two immediate predecessors. They had direct corrections experience, and said the governor’s office had undercut their authority.

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Among the officials and interest groups connected to state prisons, Tilton was initially seen as a caretaker, not expected to stay long. In the end, he won respect as a quiet, stabilizing force. But he eventually found himself confronting some of the same problems as his predecessors, struggling for access to Schwarzenegger and undermined by an aide with ties to the governor’s chief of staff, according to state officials and government observers.

The sources spoke on the condition that they not be named because the issues were sensitive.

The governor’s office, which released a statement praising Tilton’s performance, declined to comment.

On Tuesday, Tilton said health problems, which he declined to specify, and his high-pressure job required him to go. “My wife wants me to be around to take care of my grandchildren,” he said.

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On his watch, the state reduced monitoring of some former prisoners on parole, a change that has resulted in fewer people cycling through prison on parole violations, and a modest decline in the prison population, to 170,000 inmates.

He reached out to county officials in an effort to persuade them to cooperate with the state’s proposal for secure “reentry” facilities, where inmates would be housed in their home communities before release and receive help preparing for their transition back to society.

Joan Petersilia, a UC Irvine criminologist who works extensively with the state prison system, said that was a change from previous philosophies that focused on what was happening inside the institutions.

“What he did more than anything was take the reform on the road,” she said. “It was about greater collaboration between the counties and the state, and if you look at what he did in his tenure, that, to me, was his major accomplishment. He started having conversations that prior to his administration had never been had.”

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Tilton said he had seen attitudes begin to change among prison guards and inmates toward rehabilitation programs within the prisons, but hadn’t been able to implement them as quickly as he wanted because of budgetary constraints.

“The frustrating part, I think, is sometimes we expect things to be done overnight,” he said. “The inmates are saying, ‘OK, we’ve understood you. We are behaving ourselves here, we are integrating, we are getting along. Where are the programs?’ ”

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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