To save money on prisons, states take a softer stance
SALINA, Kan. — In a hushed conference room overlooking the town's main
drag, eight convicted felons, including an aspiring amateur fighter, brandish
bright Crayola markers.
The color, indicative of a restless, risk-taking personality, is the
hue of choice for most offenders, says Michelle Stephenson, the corrections
officer leading the unusual exercise.
Not long ago, Stephenson admits, the evening state-sponsored "behavioral modification" session — designed to help ex-offenders avoid costly prison time — might have been considered a perversion of this conservative state's strict law-and-order credo. But this isn't the same Kansas anymore.
"It used to be that it was more about waiting for them to mess up and send them back to prison," Stephenson says. "In this time and this economy, you can't afford to keep doing that. There is a better way to do business."
The class is part of a state effort to save millions of dollars in prison costs by changing how criminals are treated. Kansas is closing some prisons, boosting support for offenders on probation and declining to return them to prison for every probation violation.
Here and across the nation, the deepening financial crisis is forcing dramatic changes in the hard-line, punishment-based philosophy that has dominated the USA's criminal justice system for nearly two decades.
As 31 states report budget gaps that the National Governor's Association says totaled nearly $30 billion last year, criminal justice officials and lawmakers are proposing and enacting cost-cutting changes across the public safety spectrum, with uncertain ramifications for the public.
There is no dispute that the fiscal crisis is driving the changes, but the potential risks of pursuing such policies is the subject of growing debate. While some analysts believe the philosophical shift is long overdue, others fear it could undermine public safety.
Ryan King of The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, says the financial crisis has created enough "political cover" to fuel a new look at the realities of incarcerating more than 2 million people and supervising 5 million others on probation and parole.
"It's clear that locking up hundreds of thousands of people does not guarantee public safety," he says.
Joshua Marquis, a past vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, agrees the economy is prompting an overhaul of justice policy but reaches a very different conclusion about its impact on public safety.
"State after state after state appears to be waiting for the opportunity to wind back some of the most intelligent sentencing policy we have," Marquis says. "If we do this, we will pay a price. No question."
Among recent state actions:
• Kansas officials closed two detention facilities last month to save about $3.5 million. A third will be shuttered by April 1, says Roger Werholtz, chief of the state prison system. Inmates housed in the closed units will be moved to other facilities in the state.
• A California panel of federal judges recommended last month that the cash-strapped state release up to 57,000 non-violent inmates from the overcrowded system to help save $800 million.
• Kentucky officials last year allowed for the early release of non-violent offenders up to six months before their sentences end to serve the balance of their time at home.
• New Mexico and Colorado are among seven states where some lawmakers are calling for an end to the death penalty, arguing capital cases have become too costly to prosecute, reports the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty law and supports abolition of the death penalty.
"State governments operated on the principle that if you built it, they would come," King says of prison construction during the economic boom. Since 1990, corrections spending has increased by an average of 7.5% annually, reports the National Association of State Budget Officers.
"As soon as they built those prisons, they filled them," King says. "They were never able to keep up with it. There is certainly a different atmosphere now."
New approach to punishment
Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal admits he isn't the "logical guy" to lead the charge for anything that could be considered soft on crime.
During his 25 years in the state Legislature, O'Neal, a Republican, has sought longer sentences for sex offenders, backed tougher sanctions for drug dealers and supported executions.
"We're kind of a hang-'em-high state," O'Neal says.
Yet in 2007, as prison construction costs soared and state prisons reached near-capacity, O'Neal made what he calls a "surprising" political calculation: He helped push through a measure calling for a 20% reduction in probationers sent to prison for violating conditions of their release.
Despite O'Neal's fears that the new policy could allow offenders to commit other crimes, he felt spiraling costs demanded a new approach to punishing criminals.
The law gives local probation departments broader authority to decide whether technical violations of release, such as missed meetings with probation officers or failed drug tests, should result in prison. In Kansas, up to two-thirds of all new prison admissions each year are offenders who violated terms of their release.
The criminal justice overhaul has gained urgency because of the economic collapse, O'Neal says. Yet the sour economy also could jeopardize the new $4 million probation program. O'Neal is fighting to keep it, arguing it will save the state money over time.
So far, the cuts in prison admissions have saved about $80 million in future construction costs, state prison chief Werholtz says.
Among the most successful probation operations, Werholtz says, is the small community corrections office run by director Annie Grevas in Salina, a central Kansas town of about 46,000.
Over the past year, Grevas has transformed the enforcement-oriented operation, heavily focused on the surveillance of offenders, into a service broker. Probation officers now help offenders find work, health care, housing, counseling, transportation and child care.
During the past several months, for example, the office spent $110 to cover an offender's utility payments; $500 for a rent payment; $600 for six bikes the office loans to get to job interviews; $77 for a YMCA membership to help an offender improve his physical condition and $320 for eight anger-management counseling sessions.
All of the assistance is aimed at keeping offenders out of costly prison cells, although Kansas officials say they are only beginning to review whether the offenders who received the assistance have committed new offenses.
Last year, Grevas says Salina cut its probation revocations by 35%. "It is a total philosophical change," she says. "Just as we expected clients to change, we needed to change."
Sentencing policies criticized
Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says financial troubles are forcing fundamental changes in criminal justice philosophy well beyond Kansas.
"Out of this turmoil, some states realize that the size of the prison population is more than they can bear," he says. "And the public safety yield (from jailing so many) is largely uncertain."
He says mandatory minimum sentencing and the so-called "three-strikes" mandatory life terms for repeat offenders, which swept the country in the early 1990s, "may have to be modified or completely undone."
A report out this month by the Pew Center on the States, a public policy research group, found costly prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect an increase in crime or the nation's population.
"More people are behind bars principally because of a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and … imposing longer prison stays on inmates," the report says.
As a result, it concluded, state corrections-related costs have soared from $10.6 billion two decades ago to more than $44 billion last year.
"Coupled with tightening state budgets, the greater prison expenditures may force states to make tough choices about where to spend their money," it said.
Margaret Colgate Love, director of the American Bar Association's Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions, says the public "is very ready to support crime-control strategies aimed at helping people."
She says strict sentencing policies have "devastated" families and contributed to the "disastrous" overcrowded prison system in California, one of the first states to adopt the three-strikes sentencing law.
"Every time we say something or someone is soft on crime, we perpetuate a dysfunctional response to crime control," Colgate Love says. "If one good thing comes out of this economic crisis, it would be that we deal with people differently."
New Mexico, citing excessive costs, is making a dramatic change in its system. Lawmakers voted last week to abolish the death penalty, a move projected to save the state "millions of dollars," according to a state report on the measure's fiscal implications. Gov. Bill Richardson has until today to decide whether to veto the legislation.
"New Mexico does not receive much return on its death penalty investment," the state report said, adding there is just a 4.5% chance that any "multimillion-dollar" death penalty prosecution will end with an execution.
David Albo, a Republican delegate to the Virginia Legislature who has supported eliminating parole and harsher sentences for drug dealers, rejects money-saving proposals that involve early release of offenders, prison closures and other strategies.
This year, Virginia lawmakers defeated a proposal to allow for the early release of non-violent offenders as part of a plan to save $5 million. Albo and other opponents argued altering punishments amounted to "fraud on the citizens of Virginia."
"If a jury said you are going to serve 10 years, you don't go back and change that," Albo says. "I'm against anything that changes a person's sentence."
'My goal is to break the chain'
Patrick Young swears he'll do better this time.
Now on probation in Kansas for burglary, theft and failure to register as a sex offender, Young, 29, has been to prison four times since age 17. Three of those prison terms were triggered by violations of probation or parole.
The sex offense, involving a relationship with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17, has turned off more than one prospective employer, Young says.
His case is one of many that will test how well Kansas' new approach to crime and punishment works. In regular meetings with his case officer, Young is getting more support than he has received at any time in his adult life.
More than a year ago Young, given his long record of failure, likely would have been buried in the state prison system, says Ruth McDaniel, a Salina corrections officer who manages his case.
Now, McDaniel believes Young has better than long odds of successfully completing his sentence outside prison walls. She says he has matured since starting his term of supervision in Salina in March 2007.
Before he was laid off at the end of February, he was a forklift operator at a local food company for 18 months, the longest stretch of continuous employment in his life.
McDaniel helped arrange family counseling sessions to teach Young how to cope with the recent birth of a son. He is seeking financial aid to enroll in an electronics course to improve his chances at a better job.
"He has good family support," McDaniel says, adding that he has repaired strained relationships with his parents. "I see him as someone who will successfully complete his probation."
Young still has a ways to go. He must pay $7,000 in fines before he is released from supervision. That means finding more steady work amid an economic crisis.
"When I went to prison, I didn't get a lick of help," he says. "My goal is to break the chain. This place has given structure to somebody who didn't know how to change."
California prison crisis product of long-term neglect
HOW bad is California's prison overcrowding?
Last week, two federal judges ordered creation of a special panel to examine ways to relieve California's overcrowded prisons, which could include capping the inmate population or early release of some prisoners.
The state's prison system has grown such that conditions make it impossible to provide acceptable medical and mental health care. The judge's findings include, on average, one prisoner dying every 10 days based on neglect or malpractice.
The result, according to the Atlantic Monthly, is that California houses more inmates than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature tried to avoid federal intervention by passing this spring AB-900 — a $7.8 billion program to build new prison and jail cells. The judges, however, said that AB900, submitted to the courts in June, would only make the existing conditions worse.
"This court has come, with extreme reluctance but firm conviction, to the conclusion that overcrowding in the CDCR is preventing the delivery of constitutionally adequate mental health (care) ... and, therefore, that some form of limitation on the inmate population must be considered," U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento wrote in a 14-page decision.
The mere fact that prison overcrowding in California exists as the state's violent crime continues to decline demonstrates the failure
of policies that have been decades in the making. What we are witnessing, in part, are the political hyperbole chickens coming home to roost.
Law-and-order candidates of both major political parties for years have ridden the tough-on-crime crest to victory. Californians overwhelmingly supported the "Three Strikes" law through the initiative process. And when some measure of sanity was offered to repeal portions that permanently locked up nonviolent offenders several years ago, a bipartisan coalition of former governors, along with Schwarzenegger, worked for its defeat.
Since prison overcrowding publicly reached the crisis state last year, California has attempted to do in seven months what had been in the works for more than 20 years. Further adding to the crisis is California's recidivism rate, which remains the highest in the nation.
The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state research organization, estimated in 2005 that the California prisons spend roughly $1.5billion annually on parole violators and parolees who commit new crimes. The commission also cites that 10 percent of parolees are homeless, half are illiterate and up to 80 percent are unemployed. Moreover, 80 percent are drug users.
It does not require much to understand that ill-prepared parolees who cannot hold down a job, lack skills or possess ongoing drug addictions soon will be back behind bars. The Little Hoover Commission further concludes that parole violators comprise more than one-third of all inmates.
Factor in aging inmates and the number of nonviolent offenders, then ask: What do such states as Alabama, Louisiana and Texas know that California does not?
As I wrote earlier this year, the state's prison overcrowding problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Three-Strikes" laws, the high percentage of nonviolent offenders, deemphasis on rehabilitation and the failure to address chronic problems that give California the nation's highest recidivism rate greatly contribute to the current crisis conditions.
California's prison overcrowding problem has placed elected officials in the unenviable position of having to do too much too late, which could lead to a lot of window dressing without much substantive change.
There is no good answer in the short term. The popular political choice, which is to build more prisons, has been unsuccessful — unless of course you're in construction, the prison guard union or some other industry that directly benefits.
What we need now is a systematic change of direction that will require
years, not months, that puts everything on the table including the current
application of the "Three Strikes" laws along with additional resources
for rehabilitation, medical care, mental health services, drug treatment
and a common sense approach to dealing with nonviolent and aging offenders
— not to mention a little political courage.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.
Don't let politicians fool you with prison spinBy Jim Boren / The Fresno
Incompetent management of the correctional system, as well as individual prisons, has contributed to the problem careening out of control. Prison authorities can't even hire the 4,000 correctional officers that have been authorized because they can't get them trained.
Now the state's politicians are wringing their hands, blaming everyone but themselves for the out-of-control prison system.
Same old, same old
It's a tired old story in California. Major problems are ignored until they become too big to contain. We see it in the state's health care crisis, in our crumbling infrastructure and with the upside down state budget. Now we have an emergency in the prison system, and the politicians act as if they didn't see it coming.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried a short-term fix, proposing the transfer of thousands of prisoners to private lockups in other states. But the politically powerful guards union and the Service Employees International Union, which represents other prison employees, went to court to stop the transfer. They claimed Schwarzenegger didn't have the authority to send prisoners out of state, and they won.
Now the legislators are complaining about the court decision, saying it threatens public safety by forcing the early release of some prisoners. But don't believe that misdirection. It's our elected officials who have made California a more dangerous state by not fixing the system before it got into this shape.
If dangerous criminals are released to prey on Californians, those crimes will be on the hands of the state's elected leadership. It will happen because the legislators and a string of governors have ignored the problem for years.
Don't forget that during the time that the prison crisis has been brewing, the politicians have been dancing to the tune of the guards union.
Prison officials say there are about 173,000 inmates crowded into 33 prisons. Those prisons are designed to hold 100,000 inmates.
They're not working together
Schwarzenegger has proposed building more prisons and also wants a sentencing commission to look at ways to reduce the prison population. But he's not getting help from the Legislature.
Lawsuits have put the prison system under federal oversight for several reasons, including overcrowding. If the governor doesn't offer a viable plan to a federal judge, the release of prisoners could be ordered by the court.
The Schwarzenegger administration says it will appeal last week's state court decision on the out-of-state transfer of prisoners. The governor wants the ability to transfer prisoners to ease the crowding problem until a long-term solution can be found. Of course, "long-term solution" is not a phrase that the state's politicians are familiar with.
On Thursday, Schwarzenegger gave the predictable sound bite: "One thing I can assure you, we will not release any inmates that are a danger to society just because of overcrowding."
He may not have a choice if the federal judge doesn't think the governor and Legislature is acting in good faith on the overcrowding issue.
With their backs to the wall, maybe our leaders will solve this problem. But don't count on it. If their pattern holds, they'll do just enough to avert the immediate crisis.
Then they'll move to the next crisis. They can't help themselves.
Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee’s editorial page editor. E-mail him at email@example.com
or write him at 1626 E St., Fresno 93786.
$10 billion plan for new prisons readied
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is preparing to roll out a plan next year that will call for about $10 billion in construction for prisons, jails and medical facilities, and include support for a sentencing commission, according to sources familiar with the proposal.
Sources said the breakdown on funding would allocate about $4.4 billion to prisons and re-entry institutions, $4.4 billion for county jail and juvenile beds and $1 billion for medical facilities to satisfy court monitors in two federal cases overseeing health care and treatment of the mentally ill.
The outlines of the plan appear to closely follow the proposals Schwarzenegger laid out last year in his State of the State speech and then in his call for a special legislative session to ease California's prison overcrowding crisis.
Nearly 174,000 prisoners are being housed in prisons designed for fewer than half that many, which prompted the Republican governor to declare an overcrowding emergency earlier this year.
State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, said Tuesday she has been briefed by administration officials on the governor's correctional proposals for next year.
"It's going to be a broad portfolio that will include issues of capacity, local jail issues, enhancing re-entry facilities, moving forth on parole reform and, most creatively, support for a sentencing commission," said Romero, chair of the Public Safety Committee.
Administration officials declined to confirm any details of the proposals, which are expected to be among the governor's major legislative priorities next year along with health care and education.
"The governor has made no final decision on plans for reforming the prisons, and like the many other issues that are being developed by the administration, all ideas are up for debate," gubernatorial spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said.
According to sources, the new prison construction would be funded by lease-revenue bonds, with some general fund money included to take care of planning. The $4.4 billion would fund 16,000 new beds at an undisclosed number of prisons and 5,000 more beds at community-based re-entry facilities.
The re-entry facilities are mini-prisons for short-term inmates on the verge of release or returning for short stays on parole violations.
The construction money also would fund a new correctional officer training academy in Southern California and pay for modifications of San Quentin State Prison's death row.
Another $1 billion in lease-revenue bonds would be for construction of medical facilities, the sources said. Federal court monitors such as prison health czar Robert Sillen have identified the medical facilities as a crucial need to help correct what he has described as the "horrific" medical care system in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The medical facilities also have been requested by the special master in another case covering the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
Sillen has said the state could build as many as seven hospitals at seven state prisons around the state.
An additional $150 million in the Schwarzenegger plan would be directed to improving medical facilities at San Quentin.
The sources did not identify the funding source of the $4.4 billion the governor is expected to request for county jails. Counties, already suffering from massive jail overcrowding, would augment the construction funding. The money would pay for an estimated 4,500 new county jail beds.
The governor's plan also is seeking to add bed space for 4,500 juveniles at the local level.
No details were available on the sentencing commission.
Corrections Secretary Jim Tilton has said in interviews that the administration is open to the idea of a commission, which could range from being advisory in nature to having the authority to set sentencing guidelines that determine which inmates should go to prison and for how long.
"This is a new era," Romero said. "We now have the opportunity to enact a sentencing commission in California that is long overdue."
Romero predicted a positive reception for the governor's prison package in the Legislature.
"We recognize we have to address this prison crisis," she said. "Otherwise, it will continue to consume us."
Posted on Sun, Sep. 17, 2006
Prison crisis left to fester another year
SACRAMENTO - Three months ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on state legislators to take "swift and dramatic action" to fix what he called a "dangerous situation" in California's jam-packed prisons.
But lawmakers adjourned for the year at the end of August without passing a single measure to address the system's myriad problems, and prison officials warn they will simply run out of beds by June. Already, inmates are stacked on double and triple bunks in gymnasiums and day centers.
"There's a general sense of caution on anything involving crime and prisons" in California, said Robert Weisberg, director of Stanford University Law School's Criminal Justice Center. But time is running out, he said: "The state has about a two-year window to do something, but not much more and maybe less than that."
The reform stalemate -- complicated by the influence of the powerful prison guards union -- is the latest in a history of failures by the state to address what everyone agrees is a problem-plagued system -- one that no one seems able or willing to fix.
And it could force federal officials and Schwarzenegger to take matters into their own hands to relieve overcrowding and improve what has been described as deplorable inmate medical care.
Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office, which uses the courts to ensure better treatment of inmates, said his organization is weighing a federal lawsuit contending that overcrowding conditions amount to "cruel and unusual punishment." If successful, such a case could result in a cap on the prison population, he said.
"We're looking at all the legal options to get at overcrowding," Fama said, "which is a root cause of a lot of major problems in prisons."
Robert Sillen, who was appointed by a federal judge earlier this year to take over the prison health care system, said he is prepared, if necessary, to go around the Legislature and seize money from the state general fund to build new medical facilities. Among the casualties of the recent legislative session was a proposal, favored by Sillen, to build two new prison hospitals.
"These facilities will be built," Sillen said, "and they will be paid for by the state."
Schwarzenegger has indicated he may declare a state of emergency in the prisons, allowing him to impose such measures as shipping inmates to other states or reopening mothballed prison facilities.
Schwarzenegger called for a special session of the Legislature in June, declaring that "if we don't address this very dangerous situation as quickly as possible, the courts may very well take over the entire prison system and order early release of tens of thousands of prisoners." Such a scenario seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, but there is no dispute that prisons are dangerously overcrowded, housing nearly double the number of inmates they were designed for.
But politics prevailed over that apparent urgency. The gubernatorial election created a difficult backdrop for debate on prison reform. At the same time he is running for re-election, Schwarzenegger is sparring with the powerful prison guards union over a new contract. As labor negotiations stumbled, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association stepped up its opposition to the governor's reform package, a scaled-back version of which died in the Assembly in the waning hours of the Legislature.
"It was cursory, it was window dressing and it was a quick fix," Lance Corcoran, chief of governmental affairs for the 31,000-member association, said of Schwarzenegger's proposal. The union has since endorsed Schwarzenegger's opponent, Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides.
The governor proposed building two new prisons, constructing 10 community "re-entry" facilities around the state, sending 5,000 inmates to prisons in other states, and moving 4,500 non-violent female inmates into community facilities. The Senate approved planning money for several of the ideas and agreed to expand some existing prisons, but the Assembly balked, likely delaying any significant reform efforts until next year.
"I think the Legislature missed an opportunity," said state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Stockton, who presided over a series of prison hearings in August. He added, however, that the Legislature is continuing to work with prison officials to establish programs to help inmates succeed after they are released.
Some experts say they believe the special session may have been doomed to fail given the complexity of the issue and the political and time constraints on lawmakers. They say they hope the atmosphere will be different next year -- after the election -- and that legislators will embark on a comprehensive reform effort that considers not only prison construction but also sentencing and parole laws. Seven out of 10 inmates in California return to prison, the highest recidivism rate in the nation.
"Legislators will feel a little more comfortable about sticking their neck out," Weisberg, the law professor, predicted.
James Tilton, who was named the permanent corrections secretary last week after serving in an acting capacity since April, said he believes he made strides during the special session in convincing lawmakers that a crisis does in fact exist. He said he will be prepared to forge ahead next year, particularly on the proposal to build "re-entry" facilities across the state to rehabilitate inmates before they are released.
In the meantime, outside forces will continue to exert pressure for change. Schwarzenegger is contending with claims from a federal court official that he buckled on reform efforts in response to pressure from the prison guards union. Although the governor has taken steps recently that appear to distance him from the union, a hearing on the issue is scheduled for Oct. 4.
And Sillen, the federal appointee managing prison health care, is forging ahead with his own plan for new prison medical facilities, with or without the help of the Legislature.
Still, it remains an open question whether lawmakers -- always concerned about being labeled soft on crime -- are capable of tackling the issue.
"Prisons are sort of like the third rail of politics in the state," Sillen said. "It certainly didn't surprise me that nothing came out of the special session."
TIMELINE WITH STORY
This has been a controversial year for state prisons. Some notable events:
Jan. 5: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes in his State of the State address building two new prisons to relieve dangerous overcrowding.
Feb. 14: Santa Clara County health chief Robert Sillen is tapped by a federal judge to take over California's substandard prison health care system, removing that authority from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Feb. 26: Corrections Secretary Roderick Hickman, who won praise for his reform efforts, resigns after two years on the job. Hickman reportedly was frustrated that he lacked the political support to carry out his ideas.
April 19: Hickman's replacement, Jeanne Woodford, resigns after fewer than two months.
June 21: John Hagar, a court-appointed special master investigating prisons, issues a scathing report accusing Schwarzenegger of "an abrupt reversal of policy ... a retreat from prison reform" in response to pressure from the prison guards union. Schwarzenegger and the union deny the allegation.
June 26: Schwarzenegger calls a special session of the Legislature to address the prison crisis, and unveils a $6 billion plan that calls mostly for building new prison facilities.
Aug. 31: The Legislature adjourns for the year without passing any of the governor's proposals.
Sept. 13: James Tilton, the acting correction secretary, is appointed to the post permanently. He is set to earn $225,000.
State's prison system drowning in scandals
One of the difficulties facing corrections departments around the country is that their directors don’t keep their jobs very long.
The average tenure for prisons chiefs is 2.4 years – not enough time to have a real impact, said Rod Hickman, the head of California’s prison system, in an interview earlier this year.
"I don’t know that I can tell you exactly the right amount of time, but the one thing I do know that you can see from systems that are performing how people would like them to, albeit not perfectly: They had continuity in leadership," he said.
Three weeks later, Hickman resigned. He’d been on the job about two years.
Two months after that, his replacement also resigned.
For many, the revolving door at the top of the organization is the perfect symbol of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a prison system perpetually mired in scandal.
In the past two years alone:
n The department overspent its budget by a total of $1 billion.
n The system’s health-care operations were taken over by a federal judge who cited dozens of preventable deaths and called the level of care "deplorable."
n The head of the parole division was fired after the department faced criticism for housing sex offenders in trailers and hotels.
n A private firm contracted to handle prison drug treatment was investigated for spending taxpayer money on extravagant purchases such as cars and plasma-screen televisions.
Going back to the 1990s finds additional problems, including accusations that officials in Sacramento conspired to cover up the abuse of inmates at several prisons.
Even without the numerous missteps, running the state’s corrections system is a daunting challenge. The inmate population – now 172,000 – has quadrupled since 1984.
That growth strains facilities and drives up costs. Since 1999, the department’s budget exploded from $4.8 billion to $8.7 billion.
"The department is in dire need of new and proven leadership to initiate reform and restore public trust in our prison system," said Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, himself a former parole agent.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment of Hickman as secretary in 2003 was intended as a first step toward turning the troubled system around.
But now, two secretaries later, acting department head James Tilton says he only plans to stick around long enough to hire a new leadership team.
Whoever eventually leads the department will face a system that returns more released inmates to prison than any other state. Those parole recidivism numbers drive the crowding that has many institutions operating at twice their capacity.
The issue is critical, said Donald Specter of the nonprofit Prison Law Office. Population pressures make nearly every other goal for fixing the prisons impossible.
"Overcrowding has so overburdened the prison system that rehabilitation has become nothing more than an afterthought," Specter said.
Proposals to relieve crowding range from sentencing reform to a less restrictive parole system. The majority of inmates sent to prison are ex-convicts returning on parole violations.
But Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger in the gubernatorial race, Phil Angelides, see building new prisons as the answer. Both have called for extensive renovations to existing facilities and construction of new ones.
Either way, finding the best person to run the department is imperative, said Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who was chairwoman of the state Senate’s Select Committee on the California Correctional System in 2003-04.
"California has one of the largest prison systems in the world," the
senator said. "We’ve got to be able to find the right leadership to lead
it. This is something we cannot walk away from."
Schwarzenegger's proposal not enough, say 2 of his officials
Two top Schwarzenegger administration officials said in an interview that the governor's nearly $4 billion emergency plan for repairing the failing state corrections system will still leave the prisons crowded far beyond their capacity and does not address costly problems such as a major crisis in staff vacancies and medical care.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a special session of the Legislature, to begin Aug. 7, to address what his administration now describes as a public safety emergency in the state's 33 prisons. With a record 172,000 inmates, the system is operating at double capacity and, by the administration's own admission, nearly every service and treatment program is in a state of collapse.
In the interview, Susan Kennedy, the governor's chief of staff, defended the governor's record but described the prisons as part of "a system that is so broken it's a powder keg."
In fact, she used the expression "powder keg" twice, and James Tilton, the director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, acknowledged in the interview that, because of the breakdown in training and therapeutic programs, 75 percent of the inmates in some prisons have no activities at all during the day, which he described as a volatile and unsustainable problem.
"That scares me to death, but I can't do anything about programs if I haven't got any space," Tilton said.
With an election approaching, the Republican governor has offered a large, expensive package of corrective measures for the Legislature to debate, relying heavily on a massive construction scheme for expanding existing prisons and building new ones. In addition, the governor proposed building as many as 25 new types of smaller prisons, called "re-entry program facilities," focused on treatment and therapy for inmates nearing release.
Most of these re-entry prisons, which would be intended to keep more parolees out of prison by helping them find jobs and stay off drugs, would be located within urban areas throughout the state where the inmates came from, which means a large number would be in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles area.
But, if anything, the new plan understates the total costs taxpayers will have to bear to fix the ailing system. The corrections department currently spends close to $9 billion a year. That figure would likely soar under the governor's plan because of the need to pay for large increases in staff, the costs of a proposal to transfer thousands of prisoners to for-pay prisons in other states and unprecedented increases in the number of parole agents and drug treatment experts envisioned.
Kennedy and Tilton admitted in the interview that the governor's package is riddled with unanswered questions, includes an ambitious construction schedule and leaves out some potentially costly issues that will have to be addressed later -- such as the need to fill the high number of vacancies in critical staff jobs.
With 172,000 inmates, the system already has about 85,000 more inmates than it was designed for, and 16,000 inmates are living in makeshift facilities such as tents and gyms, which Kennedy called unacceptable.
"I've overcrowded all I can safely," Tilton said.
In addition, the corrections department projects the population will swell to 193,000 by 2011. Making matters worse, the state has been ordered by a federal judge to spend what could amount to more than $1 billion on separate new facilities for the rising number of severely mentally ill inmates.
A number of prison experts have harshly criticized Schwarzenegger's latest plan because, they say, there is no way he can build prisons fast enough to keep up with the expected inflow of convicted criminals and the constant reincarceration of parolees. (The governor's Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, has offered a plan that similarly relies heavily on new prison construction.)
California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, with close to 70 percent of inmates ending up back in prison within three years, a cycle that Schwarzenegger came into office pledging to break, but with no success. Many experts have urged more spending to try to sharply reduce the rate at which parolees return to prison, through drug treatment, education, rehabilitation and therapy rather than spending to build new prison cells.
Kennedy said that if the state succeeds in creating more than 40,000 new beds by 2021, as envisioned, the prison system still would be operating at far more than its designed capacity. She said it would be less than double, but neither she nor Tilton said they knew what the level would be.
"We'll always be over the design capacity," Kennedy said.
And both officials said additional money would be needed to construct space for rehabilitation, treatment, medical care and training programs -- costs that are not included in the governor's plan.
Adding all the new beds under the plan itself is a stretch, the two officials admitted. For instance, Tilton said, it could be difficult to win approvals from the communities where the small re-entry prisons would be located because of concerns over public safety.
Kennedy said there had already been some conversations with local police officials, but that they refused to even permit their names or locations to be disclosed.
"That issue is so real," Kennedy said. "It's never going to be easy to sell" the idea of constructing these new prisons in crowded communities.
Kennedy acknowledged that, although it has made many proposals, the Schwarzenegger administration had failed to make much headway in prison reform and that the prospects for building new rehabilitation programs were limited at best.
"We have now hit a wall on programming based on overcrowding," Kennedy said. "We are now sitting on a powder keg over here."
The governor came into office promising, for instance, that a new parole reform program, which would send many nonviolent parole violators into treatment programs rather than back to prison, would slash the inmate population by nearly 20,000. But within a year he abandoned the program, allowing the population to grow even larger.
A federal judge ordered the governor to reinstate the programs but, eight months later, the state has failed.
Kennedy bitterly criticized Schwarzenegger's predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis, for accelerating the decline of the state's prisons by slashing budgets and leaving the corrections department strapped. Kennedy has been the subject of much controversy because she is a Democrat and was Davis' chief of staff, which means she was intimately involved in policy planning. But she blamed herself and her colleagues for creating the current prison crisis.
"It wasn't just a reduction in programs," said Kennedy of the Davis administration. "We gutted programs."
Schwarzenegger's new package does not include what would probably be rocketing increases in the prison system's $9 billion operating costs.
In addition, Tilton said, the plan includes no allowance for expected increases in costs for operating the prison health care system, which has been seized by a federal district court judge and placed under a receiver because of its failures.
Tilton said the department would have to wait for the receiver to issue his recovery plan before beginning to account for those expenses, which the receiver has indicated could come to billions of dollars in the coming years.
Among the problems hampering the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been the fact that the longtime director, Roderick Hickman, resigned abruptly in April, followed a few weeks later by his successor.
A court-appointed receiver recently accused Kennedy of playing a role in those disruptions, saying she had undermined the directors by going behind their backs to deal directly with the leaders of the powerful prison guards union -- which has always been a big influence in state elections.
Kennedy flatly denied in the interview that she had done anything wrong, and she defended her conversations with union officials as essential for improving the ailing prisons. She insisted that she would do nothing differently, and that the governor had supported both directors before they quit.
Asked if the governor's latest plan involved election-year politics, Kennedy denied it.
"Whether or not this is seen as political is out of our hands," said Kennedy, noting that some elements of the plan, such as moving many female inmates to community facilities closer to their homes, have been discussed for many months.
"There's no more room for delay," she said.
California's Crisis In Prison Systems A Threat to Public
By John Pomfret
NORCO, Calif. -- This is what conditions are like at one of California's best prisons, the California Rehabilitation Center: Built to hold 1,800 inmates, it now bulges with more than 4,700 and is under nearly constant lockdown to prevent fights. Portions of the buildings, which date to the 1920s, are so antiquated that the electricity is shut off during rainstorms so the prisoners aren't electrocuted. The facility's once-vaunted drug rehab program has a three-month-long waiting list, and the prison is short 75 guards.
It is even worse throughout the rest of California's 32 other prisons, which make up the second-largest system in the nation after the federal Bureau of Prisons. Despite a vow from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to cut the prison population, it has surged in recent months to more than 173,000, the worst overcrowding in the country, costing taxpayers more than $8 billion a year. More of those inmates return to prison because the state has the nation's highest recidivism rate.
A senior prison official warned not long ago of "an imminent and substantial threat to the public" and fears of riots have only increased, prison officials and correctional officers said. The situation has left Schwarzenegger, who faces reelection this year, with one of his biggest political problems.
It was not always so. Once, California had the nation's premier system, studied by other states and nations. It had an admired research staff and worked to educate and rehabilitate its inmates.
But like much of the rest of the nation over the past three decades, it enacted get-tough laws with long sentencing provisions that put people behind bars for longer periods of time. Unlike many other states, however, which in recent years have looked for ways to ease prison population and lower recidivism, California has achieved little reform.
"When it comes to prison systems, California is the 800-pound gorilla," said Alexander Busansky, a former prosecutor who is executive director of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse, a think tank that works to improve prison conditions. "The problem in California is that hope is lost."
Critics of the system say it is merely reflective of the deterioration of a variety of government services, including the Golden State's educational system and its highways, that were once the envy of the nation. But what has been at work in California's prisons also reflects the effect of the nation's experimentation with tough sentencing, combined with the internal machinations of state politics.
In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, California embraced a philosophy that the state could successfully treat individual offenders through education and psychotherapy. Wardens wrote books, including the groundbreaking 1952 study "Prisoners are People," and held advanced degrees in social work. The department's research wing had 80 experts on staff.
"California was leading the rest of the nation," said John Irwin, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University who is a living example of the rehabilitative philosophy. Before he got his degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he spent five years in Soledad Prison for armed robbery.
The hallmark of that philosophy was what was known as "indeterminate sentencing." Judges would give defendants sentence ranges -- a few years to life -- and parole boards would determine whether the offender had reformed and could be released.
In 1977, then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D), responding to a worries about rising crime, did away with indeterminate sentencing. Three years later, state lawmakers enacted legislation that said the purpose of incarceration was punishment alone, formally writing rehabilitation and treatment out of the penal code. (Brown is today running for state attorney general on a platform that calls for sentencing procedures that would lower prison population.)
Over the next decade, California's legislature, dominated by Democrats, passed more than 1,000 laws increasing mandatory prison sentences. The climax came in 1994 with the enactment of the "three strikes" law mandating 25-years-to-life sentences for most offenders with two previous serious convictions. "People have this image of California beach politics and the left coast," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat from Los Angeles. "The truth is California is a law-and-order state."
Prisons expanded to accommodate the influx. Now, a person driving along Interstate 5 from Mexico to Oregon is never more than an hour from a California prison. Pilots can even navigate by the facilities' locations.
As the prison population grew and rehabilitation stopped, the Department of Corrections turned into an organization with "no other pretensions but human warehousing," said Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley.
Zimring and others say the Department of Corrections effectively ceded its managerial role to the state's correctional officers union. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association today has 31,000 members and one of the wealthiest political action committees in the state.
From the beginning, the union has been adept at cultivating backers in both parties. Union backing and millions in donations played a key role in the elections of two governors: nearly $1 million to help elect Republican Pete Wilson in 1990, and, eight years later, $2 million to Democrat Gray Davis. Both governors awarded corrections officers large raises.
For the past three years, under a contract negotiated by Davis, California's correctional officers, already the highest-paid in the nation, have been averaging increases of more than 10 percent a year; more than 2,000 of their members make more than $100,000 a year. Their contract grants them better pension benefits than professors from the state university system.
But more than salaries, the contract gives the union the right to reject policy changes. And, the union, not management, determines who fills more than 70 percent of the positions at a given prison.
In almost every way the union seems to have the state administration outgunned. "We sit down to the negotiating table, and we use our laptops. We all have one program," said Joe Bauman, a correctional officer in Norco and a union negotiator. "Meanwhile, they're using a calculator that you get free with a carton of cigarettes."
When he came into office on the back of an unprecedented recall of Davis in 2003, Schwarzenegger vowed to take on the union and bring California's prison system into the modern world. On his second day in office, he appointed Ronald Hickman, a barrel-chested former prison guard with a reputation as a reformer, to lead the department. "Corrections," Schwarzenegger said, "should correct."
Last year, Hickman reorganized the state's prison network and returned the word "rehabilitation" to the title of his agency for the first time since 1980. Schwarzenegger and Hickman subsequently announced a new parole program that they said would cut the prison population by an estimated 15,000 and vowed more changes.
But the parole plan bombed because it was poorly planned and badly executed and the prison officers unions fought it all the way, Hickman said in a recent interview. "We really didn't do a very good job on implementation."
For his part, Hickman quit in February after discovering that Schwarzenegger's top aides had been meeting with union representatives behind his back.
Hickman was replaced by Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin. But at the end of April, she also resigned after Schwarzenegger administration officials allowed the union to veto one of her picks for a warden.
Also in April, U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson in San Francisco took over the prisons' medical system, declaring that inmates were receiving inadequate care. Now, the judge is believed to be so exasperated with the slow pace of rehabilitation and with prison overcrowding that he is considering putting the entire system under federal control, said several sources familiar with the judge's plans.
And on May 11, the state's parole chief was fired after it was revealed that paroled sex offenders had been placed in hotels near Disneyland.
Facing what could be a tough campaign in November, Schwarzenegger is now courting the union, according to a Republican political consultant with knowledge of the governor's plans.
The corrections officers union had amassed a war chest of $10 million for attack ads against the governor. But now the union is "agnostic" on Schwarzenegger's reelection, Chuck Alexander, the union's executive vice president, said in an interview.
If the union maintains that stance, several Republican consultants said, it would be a significant bonus for the governor.
Meanwhile, here in Norco, a former dairy farming community east of Los Angeles, the inmates continue to pile into the California Rehabilitation Center situated on the grounds of an old resort. Warden Guillermina Hall said the institute remained devoted to rehabilitation.
But union officials point out that the educational program is basically a self-study course with little classroom time. Tougher inmates routinely compel weaker inmates to complete the coursework for them, defeating its purpose. As for the work programs, they often consist of having an inmate sweep or mop a small section of a hall over and over and over, for six hours.
"I don't care what you want to call that," said Lance Corcoran, a lobbyist for the union. "That is not rehabilitation."
Prison reviews hostage incident
The "yard" at California State Prison, Sacramento - usually bustling
with men lifting weights, playing handball or mowing the lawn - is deserted.
So are the chapels, a mosque and dining halls.
"We need a little time to breathe," spokeswoman Lt. Joyce McClendon said at the prison commonly called "New Folsom."
"We're not rushing into things; this is a day-to-day decision."
Prison officials, she said, have launched a wide-ranging assessment into how inmate and prison cook Michael David Watson, 41, managed to hold officer Sheila Mitchell, 47, captive at knifepoint for nearly 10 hours Saturday inside a dining hall office. McClendon declined to elaborate on what specifically was under review.
The ordeal, which ultimately ended peacefully, continued to raise questions Monday about how best to protect those who walk one of the most dangerous beats in law enforcement - guarding California's correctional population, one of the largest in the country.
"Safety is No. 1 is our eyes," said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, who was given frequent updates by prison management during the ordeal. "We have significant overcrowding issues across the state and significant staff vacancies across the state; those two issues are bad medicine."
Alexander, whose organization will ask to review the prison's assessment once done, said he would expect officials to look at whether the inmate was appropriately housed or whether more staffing could have been assigned for the dining hall area.
"Typically speaking, dining hall officers work alone these days," he said. Why? "To save money."
McClendon would not say Monday if other guards were in the hall or nearby when Mitchell, a nine-year veteran, was taken hostage.
The 5-foot-4 correctional officer was supervising an inmate work crew cleaning up after breakfast Saturday when Watson allegedly attacked her shortly after 7 a.m.
Watson, serving a 26-year sentence for first-degree robbery and false imprisonment from San Diego County, was seeing a psychiatrist regularly, prison officials said.
During the ordeal, he reportedly told hostage negotiators over the phone that he was unhappy because he had been fired from his cooking job; he asked for a transfer to another prison and an inventory of his property.
As a precaution, all of the 33 prisons across the state were placed on lockdown for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Terry Thornton, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman.
At 5:05 p.m. Saturday, Watson surrendered.
No other incidents were reported, and the statewide lockdown was lifted Sunday, Thornton said.
On Monday, Mitchell could not be reached for comment. McClendon said the officer, who is on administrative leave, will not be available for interviews.
Watson, meanwhile, was housed at a separate prison facility for mental health issues. Authorities declined to disclose the location.
Mitchell's ordeal marked the fifth hostage-taking at a state prison since 1995.
All of the incidents, officials said, have ended safely.
AT A GLANCE
What now? Prison officials have launched a wide-ranging assessment into
how the hostage situation happened. The Folsom prison remained under lockdown
About the writer:
Inmate shift raises prison violence fears
A "state of emergency" in California's jampacked prisons is forcing the Department of Corrections to move hundreds of inmates into less-secure housing units, raising concerns Tuesday about the potential for violence.
Beginning April 1, prison officials began preparing to clear out Pleasant Valley State Prison, a medium-security housing unit in Coalinga, to make way for 950 maximum-security inmates.
The 1,070 medium-level inmates shipped out of Coalinga - serious offenders who require less observation and control than maximum-level prisoners - were ticketed for Folsom State Prison. That movement is taking place even though the 124-year-old Sacramento County institution was downgraded to a Level II minimum-security facility 15 years ago because of problems, such as blind spots where officers can't see inmates.
Completing the domino effect, officials will be scattering hundreds of Folsom inmates into triple-bunked gymnasiums, dormitories and day rooms at three other prisons, according to Department of Corrections documents.
Among the institutions receiving the Folsom transfers will be Avenal State Prison, the most crowded in the state. Avenal already houses inmates at 244 percent of its designed capacity, according to Department of Corrections figures.
"Put it all together," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, "and you've got a powder keg here."
J.P. Tremblay, a spokesman for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees the Department of Corrections, downplayed the danger, saying prison authorities actually are initiating the inmate transfers to head off possible violence.
But state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles, said that triple-bunking inmates and cutting their work and school opportunities carry severe consequences.
"We're also talking about the potential for violence," Romero said.
The move comes as prison operations once again face intense public scrutiny. Romero, who has co-chaired the recent hearings into Department of Corrections problems, blasted the agency for failing to inform legislative leaders about the emergency declaration.
"It's simply not acceptable, especially with such scrutiny on Corrections, to not inform members of the Legislature," she said. "When we have 1,200 additional bodies in a facility, it's about the money, and it's also about the safety of the institution."
Officials said they declared the state of emergency April 1 because of an unexpected influx of convicted felons from Southern California.
They said the incoming prison buses held mostly inmates with new felony convictions. But in San Diego County, the head of jail operations for the Sheriff's Department said that parole violators account for a significant portion of the prisoners he is transferring onto the buses.
"We have increased the number of runs we made to the prisons with parolees for a good eight months or so now," said San Diego's assistant sheriff of detention facility services, Dennis Runyen. "We're doing that because our bed counts were getting maxed."
Tremblay, the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency spokesman, said prison officials issued the state of emergency notice because it allows them to move prisoners immediately, rather than following prison rules requiring that inmates be given 72-hour notice of a transfer.
As of April 14, a spike in prison inmate numbers increased the statewide population to 162,456. That is the second-highest population in state history, less than 100 behind the record 162,533 inmates housed on Sept. 30, 2000.
At Pleasant Valley State Prison, officials said they do not anticipate any major operation changes as a result of transforming their medium-level housing into a maximum-security facility.
Although the unit will be listed as a Level 4, it will be designated for inmates with "sensitive needs," according to Department of Corrections officials. A prison spokeswoman described sensitive-needs inmates as those who are gang dropouts, informants, child molesters, former law enforcement officers and others whose lives would be threatened in general population settings.
Prison officials, however, said they are bracing for more significant security threats further down the line, as inmates with higher-level classifications are shuffled to Folsom State Prison and the other Level II institutions such as Avenal, Chuckawalla Valley and California State Prison-Solano in Vacaville.
"Anytime you increase the level of prisoners being housed at a certain facility, that's one of the main considerations," said acting Folsom Prison spokesman Stan Norman. "With the Level IIIs, we'll have the ones who have experienced a certain degree of violence and more forms of illegal behavior, such as possession of drugs. You can possibly have more staff assaults."
The inmates leaving Folsom, meanwhile, are going to prisons such as Avenal. They'll be trading double-bunk cells in Folsom for triple-bunk open dorm and gymnasium settings.
"Gyms are a terrible place to live and a terrible place to work," said Corcoran, the prison union official. "You've often got as many as 300 people living in them with only two or three officers (working) on the floor."
The proposal to increase the number of people living in the gyms has drawn the attention of prison rights activists. "We're concerned and looking into it," said Donald Specter, supervising attorney of the Prison Law Office in San Rafael.
Tuesday's Los Angeles Times disclosure of the emergency declaration came as advocates for prison overhaul held a Capitol news conference calling for changes that activists said could save as much as $1 billion a year.
The proposed changes included realigning parole services to reduce the prison population by 15,000, improving work and education opportunities in the prisons to reduce recidivism, and easing the state's sentencing structure, including eliminating California's tough "three-strikes" law.
Rose Braz, spokeswoman for the group, the Coalition for Effective Public Safety, questioned the need for the emergency declaration, blaming it on a dramatic miscalculation of prison population projections.
"But even if there is this emergency, it's their own doing," Braz said. "They failed to enact any prison reforms that would have reduced the population."
The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
April 27, 2004
SACRAMENTO — The state prison system has declared a state of emergency and begun triple-bunking prisoners in two-person cells in response to an increase in the number of inmates, which is approaching historical highs.
In a memo obtained by The Times, the Department of Corrections says 1,200 unexpected inmates, most of them destined for maximum-security facilities, are streaming in from financially strapped counties that can no longer accommodate them in their jails.
The emergency declaration took effect April 1 but was never made public. It sparked angry criticism from lawmakers who learned about it only Monday and highlighted concerns about continued cost overruns at the department.
As a result of the declaration, the department is enacting emergency overcrowding measures in five facilities, a move likely to drive up overtime for prison guards as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to dramatically cut back on those costs.
"The counties are moving inmates into prison more quickly than they generally would because they have no room," said Margot Bach, a department spokeswoman. She said the department has yet to determine how much the extra overtime will cost. Officials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said an increase in arrests is also contributing to the overcrowding.
California has the largest state prison system in the nation. The department memo, signed by Chief Deputy Director Richard A. Rimmer, said "spring projections indicating a decrease in population" have not materialized.
As of April 14, there were 162,456 inmates in the state prison system, an increase of 2,592 over the same time last year. With the influx from the counties, Rimmer said the prison population "is approaching historical highs."
The unusual declaration said "these precautionary measures are deemed necessary in order to accommodate the receipt of county jail inmates and to preserve the safety and the security of staff, inmates and the department."
J.P. Tremblay, a corrections department spokesman, said the declaration was necessary to suspend rules that require the state to give inmates three days notice that they are going be moved. "This allows us to move them right away," he said.
When there is an unexpectedly large influx of inmates, declaring an emergency helps the department cope with it, he said. Using Los Angeles County as an example, he said, "they are going from sending us five or six buses a week, up to 10 buses."
The department has declared such an emergency five times in the last eight years, he said, although legislative staffers said they could never recall such action.
The news comes as the Schwarzenegger administration is working on a plan to cut $400 million from the corrections department as part of the administration's proposal for closing the state's projected $14-billion budget gap in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Officials at the Department of Finance are in the process of trying to determine the cost of the emergency measures and what effect they will have on the revised budget the governor presents in mid-May, according to spokesman H.D. Palmer.
Cost overruns that are largely the result of pay hikes, overtime and other benefits granted to prison guards have already resulted in the prison system being $544.8 million in the red for the current fiscal year.
Lawmakers, who have accused the department of gross fiscal mismanagement, reacted angrily upon learning of the latest news from the beleaguered department.
"This is exactly the kind of thing we are concerned about," said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "Emergency declarations without notifying the Legislature? This is not good."
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who has been co-chairing oversight hearings on the state prison system, said she plans to hold an emergency hearing on the order next week "to get testimony on what is going on and tell corrections officials, 'You have to be open with us.' "
Bach said state law does not require the department to inform lawmakers about the order to triple-bunk low security prisoners at Avenal State Prison, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and California State Prison, Solano and to make other changes at Folsom State Prison and Pleasant Valley State Prison. She said even though the move could involve the state having to pay increased overtime costs for prison guards, it will not result in the department needing more money in its budget.
Steinberg was skeptical of the claim.
"I have a difficult time understanding how 1,200 additional inmates will not put pressure on the budget," he said. "This begs a lot of questions. If their projections were wrong, why were they wrong? I don't think there have been major changes in our sentencing laws in the last six months."
According to Bach, the move was made to alleviate pressure on county jails. Facing budget cuts of their own, she said, they need to move inmates through the system and into state prisons as quickly as possible.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said county budget cuts have resulted in 5,000 fewer beds in his jails.
"The reality is we just don't have the jail space for the increasing numbers of state prisoners," he said.
Baca and other county officials were unaware of the state order.
Chief Chuck Jackson, who oversees the Los Angeles County jails, said the increase has nothing to do with budget problems, but with the fact that arrests are up about 10% in Los Angeles County.
"This is not something where the L.A. County Sheriff is trying to dump out prisoners," Jackson said. "We're only moving the inmates who have been convicted. They're sentenced to state prison. They are supposed to go there."
Over the last year, the county has released thousands of low-level offenders to save money. But inmates headed for state prison are felons convicted of more serious crimes, or parole violators.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are skeptical of the corrections department's reasoning. Romero pointed out the order was drafted around the same time the governor's staff was working on his revised budget proposal.
She questions whether it is part of a ploy to avoid budget cuts: "I am just suspicious of the timing," Romero said.
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Sue Fox, Dan Morain and Peter
Nicholas contributed to this report.
Three Strikes Legal - Index