Legislature approves plan for prison relief

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first_imgSACRAMENTO (AP) — The Legislature on Thursday moved to head off a federal takeover of the state prison system, approving a massive borrowing plan to add beds for inmates and refocus efforts on rehabilitation programs. But despite its scope — nearly $7.8 billion in state money — the bipartisan plan ran into immediate resistance by labor unions, prison reform groups and some lawmakers. They questioned whether it will fix the deeply troubled prison system or create even more problems by allowing room for thousands of additional inmates. The package would add 53,000 beds, boost education, job training and other rehabilitation programs, and allow the governor to continue to transfer thousands of inmates out of state. It includes more than $6.1 billion for construction of state prison cells, $300 million for various other prison improvements and more than $1.2 billion for 13,000 beds to be built at county jails. Local governments would contribute an additional $300 million. “The dangerous criminals will be kept locked up where they belong, and inmates who want to turn their lives around will be given a chance to do so,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, praising a plan that was negotiated by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders. The bill received unanimous approval in the Assembly but barely passed the Senate. It did so only after Republicans negotiated a signed letter from the governor pledging additional efforts to contain costs. Several Senate supporters said they acted only to give Schwarzenegger the tools he said he needs to avoid having the federal courts step in. “I think the judge will see that there is the will here in the Capitol to fix the problem, and that … we have done now a major step forward to provide public safety,” Schwarzenegger said. The governor’s aides said he will sign the bill. Schwarzenegger said the plan will fix the system for the next 10 to 15 years. It will eliminate the use of makeshift beds in gyms and hallways, help end the cycle that sends seven of every 10 ex-convicts back to prison soon after their release and expand county jails so they will not have to release tens of thousands of detainees prematurely each year. “We are not treating a symptom; we are proposing a cure,” said the bill’s co-author, Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton. The governor and Legislature were pressured to act by a looming June deadline set by the federal courts. A federal judge had ordered the state to create a plan to reduce its overcrowding problem — the state’s 33 prisons were designed to hold about 100,000 inmates but now house more than 172,000. If the state failed to act, it faced the prospect of federal judges ordering early release of inmates or stopping convicts from being sent to state prisons, adding to the backlog in county jails. The four legislative leaders said the plan they hammered out this week will not only reduce overcrowding but also handle an expected increase in the prison population, expected to hit 190,000 by 2012. Critics, including the union representing state prison guards and a coalition of interest groups, said the plan focuses too heavily on construction and not enough on long-term sentencing and parole changes that would send few inmates to prisons. “California is again putting prison construction in front of reform,” said Rose Braz, a spokeswoman for the group Critical Resistance, which opposes prison construction. Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Francisco, said he doubts the package will meet the demands of the federal courts. His firm represents inmates in several class action lawsuits and is seeking court orders to ease crowding. “I certainly hope it doesn’t satisfy these judges, because it doesn’t do anything in the immediate future,” Specter said. “All of the proposals are kind of years away. This doesn’t do anything in the short term except allow the transfer of 8,000 inmates (to other states). There are more than 170,000 inmates. Eight thousand is just a drop in the bucket.” Schwarzenegger said he remains open to creating a sentencing commission to review California’s convoluted criminal code, and to parole reforms that were not included in the legislative agreement. Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said prisons are dangerously understaffed, with more than 4,000 correctional officer vacancies. Moreover, shipping up to 8,000 inmates to private prisons in other states against their will invites attacks on guards, he said. “This is just putting even more stress on an already over-stressed system,” Corcoran said. He said the union’s criticism was not related to its ongoing contract negotiations with the state. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders said the labor issues must be resolved if the changes contained in Thursday’s prison package are to be effective. “We have to create a peace. Absent that, I think a judge will see right through this. … You’re building, but you’re not going to be able to manage,” Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. D-Oakland, said. Several Republican senators voted against the measure because of the high cost to taxpayers. They objected that the state will issue construction bonds in such a way that voters will not have a chance to approve or reject the spending plan. The plan will cost taxpayers $15 billion by the time the bonds to pay for it are fully repaid, said Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley. Perata and Schwarzenegger said the cost of construction is necessary to address problems that had been building for years and to head-off a federal takeover. Rehabilitating inmates to reduce crime and recidivism will cut the state’s costs in the long run, Schwarzenegger said. “You think you’re writing big checks now — wait until you write one at the direction of the federal government,” Perata said during debate on the Senate floor. Severe overcrowding is at the core of many of the problems plaguing California’s prison system, especially the way it delivers inmate health care and its high rate of inmate suicides. Three federal judges have scheduled June hearings to determine if the persistent overcrowding violates inmates’ constitutional rights. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. 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