California prison boom ends, signaling a shift in priorities

With dwindling resources and a drop in crime, state turns more to rehabilitation than bricks and barbed wire.

For the first time in decades, California has neither any prisons under construction nor plans to build more.

With the recent opening of the Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum-security facility about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles in Delano, the state has capped a 20-year building frenzy. Since 1984, the state built 33 prisons; California had constructed only 12 in the previous 132 years.

Hailed as an "end of an era" by many, the decision to build no more prisons is driven largely by dwindling financial resources. Across the nation, state expenditures for prisons over the past 15 years have grown by more than 1,000 percent. At this rate, California - like many states - can no longer afford to build new facilities.

Yet beyond simple economics, it is also symbolic of a departure from the tough-on-crime mind-set that has dominated the politics of prisons over the past 30 years. From Massachusetts to Michigan, states are placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation - establishing reentry programs to help prisoners transition back to society, shortening sentences, and diverting abuse offenders to treatment instead of jail.

"I applaud California for saying this is the last prison they plan to build," says Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, who established a statewide model reentry program in 2002. Two Ohio prisons have closed in the past four years. "If you build a prison, you are going to find people to put in it," he says.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) seems to agree, calling for a conceptual shift in one of the nation's largest prison systems. On July 1, the state's corrections department will be renamed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

And the Kern State Valley Prison, which opened last week to its first dozen prisoners and will eventually house 5,000 men, is being touted as the first maximum- security facility in the state with full-scale rehabilitative programming that could include up to eight hours a day of jobs training or abuse treatment.

The focus on rehabilitation, says department spokeswoman Margot Bach, is intended to cut down on recidivism. With 600,000 inmates leaving prisons across the country each year - and with some two-thirds of inmates rearrested within three years of their release - officials of all political persuasions are shifting their focus toward rehabilitation.

"In the past, it has been you are either for the victim or for the offender. It was a specious dichotomy," says Peggy Burke, a principal at the Center for Effective Public Policy, a think tank in Maryland. But given stubbornly high recidivism rates, "there has been a collective, 'Aha!' "

"There is a conversation going on in all kinds of venues in this country, in governors' offices, state legislatures, courts, state correction agencies," she adds, "on whether or not our incarceration strategies have been effective."

California was a trendsetter in the "get tough on crime" wave that gained momentum in the 1970s, which could explain why it has lagged behind other states, like Ohio or Michigan, in shifting the conceptual purpose of its prison system.

In the '70s, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown changed the language of the state's penal code making a prison's primary purpose one of punishment, not rehabilitation. California's 1977 law establishing determinate sentencing for most crimes and the 1994 "three strikes" law mandating at least 25-year sentences for most offenders with two previous serious convictions also have ensured teeming prisons. They have stayed that way, critics maintain, because of the powerful grip of the prison guard's union in the state.

So, many hail Governor Schwarzenegger's proposals as a departure from California's tough traditional stance. Yet many also dismiss it as rhetoric.

Rose Braz, who as director of the Oakland-based nonprofit Critical Resistance has been battling the Delano prison and others, says that the governor has cut education programs in prisons and is adding more beds to existing facilities.

"Beyond rhetoric, we have not seen [Schwarzenegger] put his money where his mouth is," she says, "other than changing the name of the department and shuffling some chairs around."

As long as a shift is driven by economics, some fear the pendulum will swing back as funds become more available.

"The binge of the '80s and '90s was simply political, it was not correlated to crime or increases in the civilian population," says Paul Sutton, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Diego. "Now why of a sudden does it stop? Once again it is not tied to a crime turnaround or people leaving the state, once again it's political. This time the politics driving the change is economics."

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