Decisive action on prison cuts is hard to come by

California lawmakers signed off last month on deep cuts to education, healthcare and welfare that many said they could scarcely have imagined in years past. But when it came time last week to address the state's overcrowded prison system -- an area where the Democrats who control the Legislature have long pushed for change -- they froze.

State prisons, criticized as unwieldy and inefficient by experts in California and across the country, have in recent years become the most sacred area of state government, seemingly impervious to transformation because of politics, fear and mistrust.

"You have an absolute hysteria," Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said last week. Crime and corrections, she said, are "a visceral issue."

With federal courts this month ordering the state to reduce the prison population by 40,000 inmates, a budget crisis that makes it crucial for the state to do so and a major riot recently at a crowded Chino lockup, the likelihood of relieving pressure and saving money at California's correctional institutions has appeared higher than ever.

When state leaders reached a budget deal last month, prisons were the only area of government on which they could not agree how to make the necessary cuts -- $1.2 billion. On Thursday, the state Senate, without a vote to spare, approved a controversial package to fill in the details.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other supporters say the plan would refocus resources on California's most violent criminals, as other states have done, and reduce the number of low-level offenders churning in and out of expensive prison cells, cutting the inmate population by 37,000 over two years. It would also create a commission to reexamine state sentencing laws.

But in the Assembly, Bass could not round up enough votes from wary Democrats, at least 16 of whom are waging bids for higher office -- including three for attorney general -- that could be hampered if they were seen as soft on crime. With letters, phone calls and personal entreaties at the Capitol, local law enforcement representatives were lobbying lawmakers against the bill, hoping to defeat it.

Legislators listened to attack lines from Republicans: "Mayhem on the streets," Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) predicted. And Senate GOP leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta said the changes would let "bad people" take away Californians' life, liberty and property.

One senator invoked the name of Lily Burk, the Los Angeles teenager slain last month, even though corrections officials say the suspected killer, a parolee, would have received more scrutiny under the plan because he had a record of violence.

So Bass said she would try again Monday with a slimmed-down package.

Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who is running for attorney general against fellow Assemblymen Alberto Torrico (D-Newark) and Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), opposed the measures. He described as "early release" a provision that would allow some inmates to serve the last year of their term on home detention with electronic monitoring. In an interview, Lieu said his bid to become the state's chief law enforcer had nothing to do with his stance on the plan.

"Forget about healthcare, environment or education policy," Lieu said. "If people are not safe or don't feel safe, then government has failed."

Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) said that problems in prisons are important "institutional issues" but that they pale beside the public safety implications of releasing criminals into neighborhoods, "where the rubber meets the road."

The number of inmates in California's prison system has skyrocketed, from 76,000 in 1988 to nearly 170,000 today, with the advent of tough-on-crime measures such as the three-strikes law and increasingly harsh sentences imposed by lawmakers. Over the last decade, spending has more than doubled, from $4.7 billion in 2000 to $10.8 billion in the fiscal year that ended in June.

Over the years, the main impetus for change in prisons has been pressure from inmates' lawyers backed by the federal courts, which took control of a prison healthcare system they judged to be unconstitutionally deficient. Many experts have recommended ways to improve the prisons without significantly impairing public safety, but those suggestions have been swallowed by Sacramento's political vortex.

Schwarzenegger made fixing the prison system a priority in his first term, reorganizing the California Department of Corrections and adding the word "Rehabilitation" to its name. But critics said too little money followed to rehabilitate prisoners, and some of that funding is being cut now.

The governor several times proposed scaling back the state parole system, one of the nation's most stringent. But he has been unable to win support from legislators and law enforcement groups and in the past has backed away. Now, however, he has staunchly advocated the plan approved by the Senate.

He called on Democrats last week to exercise political courage on an issue he said was "politically risky." And he criticized Republicans who asked for more time on the issue: "We are losing total control over the system and people say, 'What is the rush?' "

Many experts say less serious offenders belong in county jails or on probation, where they may have family support systems nearby and a better chance to turn their lives around. County and city law enforcement officials have expressed willingness to take those prisoners, but they don't believe the state would provide funding for the added burden.

"The lack of trust about money is really interfering with great criminal justice policy in the state," said Jeanne Woodford, a former San Quentin State Prison warden and a corrections secretary under Schwarzenegger.

At least one local law enforcement group, the California State Sheriffs' Assn., does not oppose putting some state prisoners on home detention, an "alternative custody" approach that counties use with their own inmates. But in a letter Thursday, the association asked that state leaders reconsider proposals that would reduce penalties for some crimes and send those offenders to county jails instead of prison.

County lockups "are facing their own overcrowding crisis," the letter said.

Nick Warner, legislative director for the sheriffs' association, said they understand that if the state doesn't take action soon, the federal courts will. The judges in the prison case could order the state to implement parts of the package that is now before lawmakers or to release prisoners and limit admissions. They have said they would delay such plans pending an appeal of their ruling, however, which would probably keep the budgetary pressure on state officials.

Warner, citing the tough decisions to be made, said: "We'd like to help the legislators and the governor make reasoned choices in a way that is workable and manageable -- even if they are not good choices."

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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