Pubdate: Sat, 27 Dec 2003
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2003 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Gary Delsohn, Bee Capitol Bureau
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (California)


The governor's ideas, if enacted, would reduce the prison population
and save millions of dollars.

Convinced that California can no longer afford its $5.3 billion prison
and parole system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is
exploring moves that would all but eliminate parole conditions for
nonviolent, nonserious offenders and eventually -- through early
release and lighter penalties -- dramatically shrink the prison population.

Some of the moves result from recent court settlements. Others are
efforts whose planning began under former Gov. Gray Davis and have
been speeded up by Schwarzenegger.

But taken together, the moves would mark a profound retrenching of the
state's correctional boom, fueled in recent years by tough new
sentencing laws and the growing political clout of the union
representing California prison correctional officers.

"Arnold has had us identify the nonviolent, nonthreatening inmates,"
said one high-ranking corrections official working on some of the
proposals. "We could probably cut the (prison) population by a third,
which would be a huge savings for taxpayers and give some of these
people a chance to be productive citizens again."

Administration sources said the ideas are driven by California's
fiscal problems and, if successful, could save the state hundreds of
millions of dollars a year. They say the ideas would not jeopardize
public safety because most of the targeted offenders are now locked up
for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

The changes, most of which need legislative approval, also could go a
long way toward improving California's much-criticized parole program.
It was blasted in a recent state report as "a billion-dollar failure"
with recidivism rates nearly twice the national average.

And while aides say he has no intention of easing penalties against
serious and violent criminals, Schwarzenegger is reportedly open to a
wide range of possible changes that would signal a bold departure from
how California's last three governors dealt with the criminal justice

"All of that's being researched now to look at it very carefully to
make sure it doesn't affect public safety," acknowledged Tip Kindel,
spokesman for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

"We're doing our homework. These are all ideas that are interesting,
but they have to be (investigated) before a policy decision is made.
But from what I understand, there is a willingness to look at and
consider them."

Kindel said corrections officials have estimated that as many as
25,000 of the state's 161,000 inmates could be released without posing
a threat to society, but others say the number could be twice as high.

"The vast majority of our inmates are in there for serious crimes,"
Kindel added. "Those are not being looked at (for early release) at

Rod Hickman, Schwarzenegger's new director of the correctional agency,
was unavailable for comment. But administration sources say the former
guard and warden is providing much of the impetus for the possible

As a moderate Republican less worried than Davis was about being
portrayed as soft on crime, Schwarzenegger is far more willing, his
aides say, to look at issues such as early release of nonviolent and
"nonserious offenders" than Davis would have been.

"We have talked about the Board of Prison Terms and the sentencing
laws in general as they affect state policy and as they affect state
resources," said a high-ranking aide.

The governor is looking at "shorter sentences for lighter crimes," the
aide said, "as part of his overall look at how expensive and
bureaucratic our criminal justice system is."

This aide cautioned that much of what's on the table is at a "very
preliminary point" right now, but sources who've worked with the
administration on some of these issues say budget imperatives are
pushing them to the forefront.

"The pendulum swung very far with all those new sentencing laws and
all the new prisons we've built," said a corrections expert who's
consulted the new administration. "It probably has to swing back the
other way."

The potential moves would likely get a favorable reaction among the
Democratic leadership in the Senate and Assembly. Senate President Pro
Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, has argued for years that too many
people are sent back to prison for minor parole violations, but
Democrat Davis would not budge on the issue.

It's on the Republican side of the aisle, however, where
Schwarzenegger might run into more resistance.

"It would be very difficult to become more lax toward criminality and
have it pass with Republicans," said state Sen. Rico Oller, R-San
Andreas. "With all due respect to the governor, people in the
penitentiary are there for serious crimes and they ought to serve
their full sentences."

Schwarzenegger already has shown far more flexibility than Davis when
it comes to reversing parole decisions forwarded to him by the state's
Board of Prison Terms. Davis reversed all but a handful of parole
recommendations from the board for convicted murderers serving life
terms, but Schwarzenegger has allowed five to go free after the board
set parole dates for them.

Don Novey, who turned the California Correctional Peace Officers
Association into a political power at the state Capitol, said he's
heard about many of the proposals under study and is waiting to see
how "it all shakes out" in Schwarzenegger's budget proposal for the
next fiscal year, which is due by Jan. 10.

"With 30 years in the profession, I'd just say anything they do should
be looked at with public safety paramount," Novey said.

The most immediate change embraced by Schwarzenegger grew out of last
year's state budget debate and also was backed by Davis.

Dubbed the new "Parole Model," the program shifts $50 million from the
prison system's "institutions" budget to "parole" and is expected to
begin in February or March.

For the first time ever, "re-entry" units will be established at each
of the state's 32 prisons and 11 reception centers to counsel inmates
while they're still locked up.

They'll each be staffed with one parole supervisor, one parole agent
and office staff. The aim is to work on a parole plan with the inmates
before they get released -- work, living arrangements, counseling,
drug treatment -- designed to improve their chances of staying out of

"We've never really involved (inmates) in their release plans,"
Jackson said. "This is really some pretty basic stuff to make sure,
before the parolee gets out, that we have a solid plan."

Some parolees will be placed on electronic monitoring, something that
in the past was done only for serious offenders. Others who violate
their parole by missing an appointment with a probation agent or by
testing positive for drugs would be returned to "community
correctional re-entry centers" for 30 to 90 days instead of being sent
back to prison.

Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance and the correctional agency are
studying an even more sweeping proposal that would abolish parole for
nonserious and nonviolent inmates.

According to internal memos reviewed by The Bee, corrections officials
are considering cutting the number of active and supervised parolees
from nearly 97,000 to between 50,000 and 60,000.

The memos say such a shift, which would require legislative action to
change the state's penal code, could save an estimated $231 million a
year by 2005-06.

The changes would come on the heels of two important developments
concerning California's parole program.

On Nov. 14, the state's Little Hoover Commission issued a scathing
report in which it noted that nearly 70 percent of California parolees
were returned to prison. The national average is 35 percent, and many
of the California inmates who went back to prison did so for violating
relatively minor conditions of their release.

"The state's fiscal crisis provides an important opportunity to
rethink essential public safety policies that are not working well,"
commission Chairman Michael E. Alpert said when the report was released.

And on Nov. 18, the day after Schwarzenegger took the oath of office,
his administration settled a federal lawsuit over how long suspected
parole violators were forced to sit in prison before hearings were
held on whether they actually did break conditions of their release.

That settlement, resisted by the Davis administration, calls for
hearings within 35 days and gave suspected violators the right to have
their case argued with a lawyer. 
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