California tackles its prison problem

Facing overcrowding and rising costs, a panel calls for better management, and state voters will reconsider nation's toughest three-strikes law.

More than anytime in the past quarter century, America's largest state - and largest correctional system - is huddled around the drawing board of prison reform.

After two decades of unprecedented prison building, and a decade after leading the nation in get-tough laws, the prison population has ballooned from 20,000 to 163,000 bringing unforeseen implications with it.

Some national observers hold that the giant criminal-justice bureaucracy made up of 54,000 employees has become more unwieldy and change-resistant than ever. But even the most battle-weary veterans of past failures say the mounting attention on California's prisons presents opportunity.

"There is more reason to be optimistic about California's ability to tackle its prison problem than anytime in a couple decades," says Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington. "The pressure is there, the policies are there, and the public is more attentive and involved."

A governor-appointed blue-ribbon commission concluded last month that the system has spun out of control in costs, recidivism, abuse, and lack of transparency or accountability. At the same time, two court-ordered reports on inmate abuse have been the subject of ongoing legislative hearings for the past year. And a citizen-backed initiative on the ballot this fall seeks to recast the nation's first and strictest three-strikes law.

Growing prison population

As state legislators try to close a $18 billion to $22 billion budget gap, the budget's second-biggest pie slice is coming under greater scrutiny. Adding to the yearly cost of $6 billion to run the prison system is the nation's worst recidivism rate: In 2002, 85,000 of 100,000 prison releases were back in prison within six months, according to Sen. Jackie Speier (D).

One-hundred-and-fifty state prison officials spent last week examining every aspect of criminal justice from arrest to release. One unifying message: California needs to recast the way it approaches corrective measures for prisoners while in prison - from job training to behavior counseling - so that prisoners who enter the system can find a constructive way out. Many investigators say prisons could do a better job with programs already in place if the guards were instructed to make rehabilitation a higher priority.

"Prison administrations are less in control of what is going on inside their prisons than are the guards who are not interested in promoting rehabilitation," says Richard Steffen, staff director for the Senate Government Oversight Committee looking into abuse in prisons.

Modifying three-strikes law

As prison management is coming under greater examination, the sentencing end of the criminal justice equation is also being questioned. Prompted by 10 years of out- cries of jammed courts and prisons, a citizens initiative on the November ballot will seek to tweak the nation's toughest three-strikes laws to focus more on violent crime.

"Californians are spending a lot money and prison space to keep people in prison for life for nonserious crimes," says James Benson, author of the initiative.

The initiative redefines serious and violent felonies and removes three-strikes penalties for minor infractions that have sent hundreds of third-time offenders to prison over such crimes as petty theft.

New US Supreme Court dictates on sentencing guidelines are causing a reevaluation of sentencing across the state as well. Split in a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court on June 24 cast doubt on the validity of thousands of sentences, at both the state and federal level, according to legal observers.

A recent California Field Poll here shows that state voters overwhelmingly (76 percent to 14 percent) support the initiative to modify three strikes. The new measure would require that a defendant be convicted of a violent or serious felony to qualify for a third-strike sentence of 25 years to life.

The initiative faces political roadblocks, however, from opponents such as Governor Schwarzenegger and Atty. General Bill Lockyear who argue that judges already have the discretion to limit overlong sentences. A coalition of law-enforcement groups also claim that the new law could lead to the early release of 26,000 convicts.

"People in California passed three-strikes because they didn't feel safe in their homes and communities," says Carol Norris, president of the California Probation, Parole and Corrections Association. "Crime is down, which proves to us the law is doing what it was supposed to do. We don't want to reverse that progress."

Because of the split between citizens, politicians, and some justice organizations, other observers say the pendulum may swing away from the initiative when voters take a closer look at the consequences and cost savings.

Resistance to change

Despite all the activity on several fronts to examine costs, sentencing, overcrowding, and procedure, several observers say California's prison reformers have an uphill battle against the California Correctional Peace Officers Association - the prison guard union - and local communities and politicians who have a stake in the prisons they have spent the past two decades building.

"My sense is that nothing is going to change unless attitudes change, so a lot of those recommendations are not gong to go anywhere," says Senator Steffen.

Still, key officials are optimistic. "The leadership is different, all the stake holders are involved, and both internal and external evaluations are in place," says RoderickHickman, Mr. Schwarzenegger's cabinet-level administrator for prisons. He says collaboration between officials, social organizations, and citizens is making a difference.

"If we can break the cycle of reoffending for criminals, all these sentencing changes don't matter," he says. "Collaboration means you get accountability through the system from arrest to release."

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