Source:   San Jose Mercury News
Contact:    Mon, 16 Feb 1998


GOV. Pete Wilson's proposal to remove lawbooks from state prisons (Page 3B,
Feb. 10) is one of his worst.

A number of prisoners in California file suit each year challenging their
conditions of confinement as well as seeking post-conviction relief. The
vast majority are filing their legal materials themselves because they
cannot afford legal representation, and pro bono assistance is scarce.

Many were initially represented by public defenders who, although they may
have done their best to defend their clients, are subject to heavy
caseloads and are not always able to devote a reasonable amount of
attention to each case. As a result, errors have been made which should be
reviewed. Filling out a standard form without the ability to research
relevant legal texts is akin to putting someone in the pilot's seat without
training him how to fly. That's not a plane that most people would want to
fly on.

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for access
to the courts by inmates. For the past 20 years, this has meant that
inmates will receive legal assistance provided by someone trained in the
law or have access to a law library. Inmates need a realistic means to
address illegal or invalid convictions and sentences as well as challenge
unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

Inmates are an easy political target. Who wants to preserve the rights of
murderers, child molesters and rapists? The problem is that the legal
system is not perfect, and as a result, we end up convicting individuals
who are not always guilty.

I would imagine that the total dollar amount spent on legal materials in
state prisons is not an astounding figure compared with other expenditures.
A cut in this area is one that is far too costly too make.

Lolly P. Belanger