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Calif. hopes to avoid federal takeover of prisons

Legislators hoping to avoid a federal takeover of California’s overcrowded prisons approved a $7.3 billion plan Thursday to add beds and beef up rehabilitation programs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Legislators hoping to avoid a federal takeover of California’s overcrowded prisons approved a $7.3 billion plan on Thursday to add beds and beef up rehabilitation programs.

The bill, negotiated by Democratic and Republican leaders, passed unanimously in the Assembly but barely got the required two-thirds majority in the Senate with a 27-10 vote.

The plan, which now goes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would add 53,000 beds for inmates, including 13,000 at county jails. It would also boost rehabilitation programs, including education and job training, and let the governor continue to transfer thousands of inmates out of state.

Proponents said the combination would reduce overcrowding in state prisons and county jails, while trying to end the cycle that sends seven of every 10 ex-convicts back to prison soon after their release.

“We are not treating a symptom, we are proposing a cure,” said Republican Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, the bill’s co-author.

Feds may have final say
Schwarzenegger was expected to sign the bill, which must still pass muster with the federal courts.

The Legislature was under a June court deadline to come up with a plan to ease its severe prison overcrowding, which is at the core of problems including poor inmate health care and high suicide rates.

The state’s 33 prisons were designed to hold about 100,000 inmates but now house more than 172,000, and some prisoners must sleep in hallways or gyms.

If the state had failed to act, it faced the prospect of federal judges ordering early release of inmates or stopping convicts from being sent to state prisons, adding to the backlog in county jails.

Under the new plan, the state would contribute $6.1 billion and the counties $1.2 billion. Almost all the state money would come from lease-revenue bonds, which do not require voter approval.

Bill pushed through fast track
Some Republican senators questioned the cost of the bill and the way it was handled, bypassing the normal committee hearings and given to lawmakers just hours before they were scheduled to vote on it.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, a Democrat, said no one liked voting for the bill but that it was necessary to head off a federal takeover.

“You think you’re writing big checks now — wait until you write one at the direction of the federal government,” he said.

Schwarzenegger acknowledged the plan’s high cost during a news conference after Thursday’s Assembly vote.

But, he told reporters, “with the decision they have made today ... we are actually investing so we can cut down the cost of our prison system.”

Reform system first, critics say
Critics of the plan emerged immediately. The union representing state prison guards and a coalition of interest groups said it focuses too heavily on construction and not enough on long-term sentencing and management.

“California is again putting prison construction in front of reform. Real reform would mean no need for more prison, jail and juvenile detention beds,” said Rose Braz, a spokeswoman for the group Critical Resistance, which opposes prison construction.

Over the years, lawsuits have led to a patchwork of federal judges being put in charge of many aspects of California’s prison operations, including employee discipline, parole and the treatment of sick and mentally ill inmates.

Three federal judges have scheduled June hearings to determine whether the persistent overcrowding violates inmates’ constitutional rights.