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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Trying to Free Funds From Prison Budget

May 30, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The old saw about Willie Sutton robbing banks because, he said, that's where the money was is apropos of a pending fight over prisons.

Prison costs are rising faster than any other state expenditure. A decade ago, 3% of the general fund went for prisons. Today's it's nearly 9%. By 2003, according to the Rand Corp., it will be 18%, leaving little for universities.

Indeed, what discretionary state spending there is now pours into prisons. Thus, that's where the Legislature and governor--a la Sutton--can look for the big bucks to save.

Savings must be found to balance the next budget. But more critical is the long-term need to control runaway prison costs and hold down future state spending.

Put simply, we're fast approaching the time when California won't be able to lock up the likes of Willie Sutton. It will have neither enough prisons nor the desire to spend the money they now cost to build, roughly $200 million each.

"Californians continue to favor harsh penalties for violent crime, but do not support the funding for prisons that those laws require," noted a polling firm, Frederick/Schneiders, in analyzing the results of a survey commissioned by the prison guards union.

The survey found that a majority of voters would oppose a bond issue for prison construction. If forced to decide between building more schools or more prisons, voters would choose schools by 5 to 1.

"The only way to build a consensus for prisons," the pollsters said, "is to do so in a way that will not be seen as coming at the expense of education."

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There now is a converging of different prison philosophies and interests in the Capitol. Using just ordinary political skills, the governor and legislators should be able to turn this into successful negotiations for cutting both the operating and building costs of lockups.

Gov. Pete Wilson wants to place on the November ballot a $2.65-billion bond issue to finance construction of six prisons. The necessary legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), is on the Assembly floor awaiting a vote. It requires a two-thirds majority, however, and cannot pass without the support of minority Democrats, who demand cost-cutting.

In the Senate, where Democrats reign, President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer of Hayward says he won't vote for prison bonds until there is significant cost-cutting. He has proposed locking up nonviolent felons in less expensive local jails.

Veteran Sen. Dan Boatwright (D-Concord) is insisting on a 25% reduction in building costs. He and Democratic caucus Chairman Richard G. Polanco of Los Angeles strongly support a bill by GOP Sen. John R. Lewis of Orange to permit private construction and operation of five prisons.

Wilson advocates privatization generally, but is not convinced rent-a-cops should be guarding violent felons. The governor also has a political complication: The privatization bill is opposed by prison guards--they'd lose jobs--and their union has been his biggest campaign contributor, kicking in $1.7 million for two gubernatorial races.

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The 25,000 guards--California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.--now have weighed in with their own cost-cutting proposals.

Overcrowded prisons "aren't getting any safer with 'three strikes' [sentences]," notes union President Don Novey. "Officers are being stabbed, punched in the face, bitten by AIDS patients. . . ."

Among the union's recommendations:

* Reserve prison cells for violent, repeat criminals. First-time, nonviolent felons--store burglars, druggies--could be placed briefly in "shock incarceration" to show them life on the inside, then paroled to strict "day reporting." That would eliminate the need for one entire prison.

* Build local "reentry facilities" to ease paroled inmates back into society. Far fewer would return to crime. That would save yet another prison.

* Construct "mega-prisons," clusters of four lockups housing up to 20,000 inmates and using common kitchens and other facilities. Building costs could be cut by 15%.

* Move death row from San Quentin, perhaps to Corcoran, as part of a system-wide security reclassification. Aging San Quentin could be run more cheaply if it didn't need heavy security because of death row.

* Also: Surround all prisons with "lethal electric fencing." Use inmate labor to build some facilities. Finance construction with revenue bonds, which don't require voter approval.

There now are 138,000 inmates packed into prisons originally designed for 71,000. In the Capitol, there's a common goal: to make sure the overcrowding doesn't get so bad that some federal judge starts releasing violent criminals. That would be very dangerous politically.

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