California to expand its packed prisons

California's solution to desperately overcrowded prisons seems simple enough: Expand the prisons.

Faced with prisons so overcrowded that the federal government is threatening intervention, California has opted for a massive expansion of existing facilities.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) this week is expected to sign a $7.4 billion bill that will primarily add 53,000 beds, with a $50 million sliver going to rehabilitation programs. California's state prisons currently house 172,000 convicts, nearly twice the system's capacity.

The bill's passage last week breaks a long stalemate over how to handle the overcrowding crisis and enhances Governor Schwarzenegger's get-it-done, "postpartisan" image.

But the bill's critics – and even some lawmakers who voted for it – decry the lack of changes to sentencing and parole policies, and the proportionately small funding increase for rehabilitation.

California has long championed tough sentencing, including its first-in-the-nation "three strikes and you're out" law, and the deal reflects politicians' and the public's faith in that approach. But it's a costly solution, one falling out of favor in many other states with overstuffed prisons, some experts say.

"There is a growing bipartisan consensus across the country on these issues and a realization that getting tough on criminals has gotten too tough on taxpayers," says Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. "States from Connecticut to Alabama to Texas and Kansas are coming up with solutions that control costs and control crime."

One idea not included in the final deal on the prison bill was to create a sentencing commission. Democratic lawmakers and Schwarzenegger had expressed support for such a commission, and more than 20 states have introduced them, but Republican lawmakers fought it. Sentencing commissions analyze data on which types of offenders are filling up the prisons and, using that data, specify narrow ranges for prison terms.

Such sentencing guidelines, most often set by commissions, are the only policy tool consistently found to reduce incarceration rates, according to research by the Vera Institute for Justice in New York. California has the 16th highest incarceration rate among US states.

When state lawmakers vote in new laws that stiffen sentences, they at times overlook the long-term consequences of having more inmates serving longer prison terms, says Barbara Tombs, director of the Vera Institute. For instance, if a statute doubles the sentence for burglary from five years to 10 years, a rise in prison population won't be felt until year six.

"It may be years before you start paying for the sins of your fathers," says Ms. Tombs. "A good commission – where they are looking at data, and they understand the data, and they are reviewing the data – can counteract some of these things."

Recognizing this problem, Senate majority leader Gloria Romero (D) had placed a hold on any bill that would name new crimes or lengthen sentences, until a prison deal was struck. When the deal was finally announced last week, she came out against it, calling it a "fig leaf" for the governor to stave off a federal takeover.

Other Democratic leaders supported the bill, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. "There are two pillars here that we are addressing," he said at a press conference Thursday, referring to the expansion in beds and the rehabilitation efforts. He described the latter as "very serious reforms" that should reduce California's recidivism rate, an unusually high 70 percent.

Some of the new beds will be placed in new "reentry" centers, which are smaller facilities within the local communities where inmates eventually will be paroled. Inmates nearing release will be shifted there to focus more on rehabilitation and transitioning back into society.

The plan also allows Schwarzenegger to continue the practice of transferring some convicts to prisons in other states.

Assemblyman Michael Villines, the Assembly's Republican leader, expressed relief that the deal didn't include a sentencing commission. Republicans "argued that such an approach would threaten public safety," reads a statement from his office.

Critics of sentencing commissions worry that some types of offenders will end up with shorter sentences. Others argue that such commissions circumvent the democratic process by intruding on elected officials' prerogative to write sentencing law.

"Legislatures should be doing this," says Harriet Salano of Crime Victims United of California. "On a sentencing commission, the Department of Corrections and the bureaucrats are sitting on it."

Tombs says commissions typically are made up of stakeholders and experts from across the criminal-justice system and can include victims' rights advocates.

Speaker Núñez noted that another bill addresses the idea of a sentencing commission. But political analysts doubt the legislature will do much else on prison reform.

"The question would be: If not now, when? The legislators and governor had enormous pressure on them to come up with solutions, and this was their best effort. This is where they could reach consensus," says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank in San Francisco. "It really falls sort of what many hoped would be a more comprehensive approach."

Beyond the question of sentencing, the plan does not address the high numbers of parole violators who are taking up space in prison – something that might be remedied with better parole services. Nor does it add correctional officers to the system, which is short some 4,000 workers.

Even among some of the bill's backers, there is an air of resignation about the deal, that it represents the most that could be done. "We are going to pass this here today because it will not get better with time," said Senate pro tem Don Perata (D) on the floor Thursday, before voting yes on the measure.

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