State seeks $7.4 billion for prisons
Under intense pressure to ease crowding, officials back plan to add beds and aid released inmates.
By Jenifer Warren
Times Staff Writer
April 26, 2007
SACRAMENTO — Facing mounting pressure from the federal courts, legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed Wednesday to spend $7.4 billion on new jail and prison beds while doing more to help inmates succeed once released.
The complex deal, reached after weeks of negotiations, represents an effort to ease overcrowding in California's sprawling correctional system, where 172,000 convicts are packed into space intended for about 100,000.
The crowding crisis has become so severe that federal judges, who already control large portions of the state system, are considering whether to cap the inmate population. Hearings on that issue are set for June.
The deal, which would create 53,000 beds at prisons, jails and new urban "reentry" centers, is set for a vote in the Legislature today. Contained in an urgency bill, it requires approval by two-thirds of the members in each house and would take effect immediately. The beds would be funded by lease revenue bonds, which do not require voters' approval.
The bill would also break new ground by giving the governor temporary authority to transfer up to 8,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities against their will. Schwarzenegger initiated such transfers in October to free up space and moved 350 inmates, all volunteers. But the transfers were stalled by the courts after unions challenged the governor's authority to order them.
Senate Democratic leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) praised the agreement as a balanced response to the prison crisis that would reduce the state's alarming recidivism rate.
"Every negotiation requires compromise, and this agreement provides both a big increase in prison beds as well as a strong commitment to rehabilitation programs and greater oversight of the Department of Corrections," Perata said.
In a statement, Schwarzenegger said that after ignoring the prison crisis for decades, California was on the verge of making history.
"This proposal will bring critical new rehabilitation programs and create desperately needed space to relieve overcrowding," the governor said, praising legislative leaders for joining him in addressing "this very real threat to public safety."
But critics called the plan disappointing, saying that it falls far short of what California needs to quickly ease the overcrowded conditions and reduce recidivism. About 70% of felons who are released are back in prison within a few years, a rate that leads the nation.
Several proposals that might have brought a more immediate drop in the population — but are considered politically risky — were omitted from the deal. They include keeping tens of thousands of parole violators out of state prison by using other sanctions to punish them — an approach used in numerous other states.
The agreement does not include the creation of a commission to review and change the state's sentencing laws, which scholars believe is essential to controlling the prison population. Perata said that controversial issue would be dealt with through separate legislation.
Lawyers for inmates in three class-action suits against the state were among those expressing dismay. They predicted that the package would not satisfy the judges considering a population cap.
"The deal is mostly a prison construction program, which is going to cost billions without any significant effect on crime," said Donald Specter, executive director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office. "It really ignores any meaningful short-term reforms and it assumes the department will provide quality rehabilitation programs, which is almost a flight of fancy."
A spokesman for the powerful prison guards' union also had harsh words for the deal and said the organization would work today to sway legislators against it.
"We are going to do everything we can to point out the dangers of this plan," said Lance Corcoran of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
He said the union was particularly concerned about the mandatory out-of-state transfers authorized by the deal, noting that inmates who did not wish to move would create peril for officers.
"We're going to have to fight them out of their cells," he said, adding that putting in more beds at prisons that are already crowded would also endanger officers.
The agreement proposes adding beds in two phases, with the second round of construction authorized only if the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation meets certain conditions. In addition, all new beds would be accompanied by increases in rehabilitation programs, including substance abuse counseling, academic and vocational training and mental health services. In the first year, $50 million would be allocated for such programs.
The first phase calls for spending $3.6 billion on 32,000 beds at jails, existing prisons and smaller community "reentry" facilities for convicts nearing the end of their terms. The total also would include 6,000 medical beds requested by the federal receiver in charge of inmate healthcare.
In order to obtain funding for the second phase, officials would have to meet about a dozen benchmarks tied to enhanced rehabilitation for inmates. Among those are the creation of 4,000 drug treatment slots; formation of a California rehabilitation oversight board to monitor the department's progress; individual inmate assessments to ensure that each receives suitable education or mental health treatment; and overall expansion of vocational and academic training behind bars.
If the goals were met, the department would receive $2.5 billion in bond money to build an additional 16,000 beds at state facilities; 5,000 beds would be added to county jails.
The state money would be matched in both phases by county funds totaling more than $1.2 billion.
Pressure for a deal has been building since last summer, when a special session on prisons called by Schwarzenegger failed to yield results. In October, the governor declared a state of emergency in the prisons, saying that extreme peril existed for staff and inmates.
In December, lawyers representing inmates in three class-action lawsuits — concerning medical and mental health care, as well as the treatment of disabled prisoners — filed motions seeking the population cap.
The lawyers argue that overcrowding has become so severe that it is preventing state officials from resolving problems they committed to fix as part of the litigation. They say that only a significantly lower population would enable the state to raise medical and mental health care to constitutionally adequate standards.
Two of the judges, Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento, have already indicated that they may be inclined to move toward a population cap.
At a December hearing, Karlton gave the state six months to continue to show progress, and said that although he hopes to avoid what he called "a radical step," he would do it if pushed.
In a February order, Henderson indicated that he expects the state to reduce the population from its current level. He directed officials to report by May 15, "each concrete measure" they are taking to reduce the population by next March, and by March 2009.