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California prisons chief says he will step down

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday named Scott Kernan as Secretary of the California Department of Correctionis and Rehabilitation.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday named Scott Kernan as Secretary of the California Department of Correctionis and Rehabilitation.

(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

California prisons chief Jeffrey Beard is resigning at the start of next year, returning to family he left behind three years ago in Pennsylvania.

Beard’s resignation was announced by Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. Staff at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Beard told them he was leaving during the normal morning briefing Thursday at Sacramento headquarters.

“When he took the job in December 2012, he thought he might be here for a couple of years but that he had no fixed time line,” said agency spokesman Jeffrey Callison. “It’s now three years on, and he feels it’s time to focus more of his time and energy on his family who live a couple of thousand miles away.”

Beard, 68, had retired as the prisons chief in Pennsylvania and was doing consulting work, including for Brown’s embattled Corrections Department, when the governor tapped him to take over one of the state’s largest agencies. He retained his home in Pennsylvania, where his wife stayed.

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At the time, the Corrections Department had an $8.7-billion budget that oversaw 33 prisons, supervised felons on parole, juveniles in state detention and managed parole hearings for lifers eligible for release from prison.

But the job, with a $225,000 salary, also came with outside masters: federal judges who held oversight over prison crowding, medical care, mental health services and provisions for the disabled.

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Internal records show that as a consultant, Beard had advised Brown’s administration that California was ready to retake control of its prisons. The legal battle to terminate federal control was among Beard’s first acts as secretary of Corrections.

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But when efforts to wrest control from the courts failed a year later, Beard oversaw settlements and policy changes that sought to resolve those disputes. They included agreements to review decisions keeping inmates in indefinite solitary confinement and to restrict the use of pepper spray and physical force on mentally ill prisoners.

Beard cited those cases in his letter of resignation, saying, “our prisons are also safer now.”

“With Jeff’s leadership, things are now moving forward,” said Michael Bien, lead attorney for prisoners in class action over inmate mental healthcare. But Bien noted several top deputies have also resigned in the last year. He said he is concerned that there is not “significant leadership remaining to make this culture change happen ... this stuff isn’t easy.”

Brown’s office praised Beard’s record, saying he “took charge of California’s prison system at a time of great challenge, including overcrowding and numerous federal lawsuits. ... Thanks to his outstanding leadership, today’s California correctional institutions are safer and more focused on rehabilitation.”

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The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the union that represents about 30,000 prison guards, issued a short statement sending Beard “well wishes and hopes he enjoys retirement.”

Beard’s resignation is effective Jan. 1.

For more California corrections news, follow me at @paigestjohn on Twitter.

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For the latest on political coverage, go to www.latimes.com/politics.

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