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Wrong Time for New Prison

June 07, 2002

Connect the dots. Last week, the Justice Department released a study showing that the fanatical prison building boom in most U.S. states in the 1980s and early '90s did not deter crime. In fact, the rate at which inmates released from prison committed new crimes increased from 1983 to 1994. The California Department of Corrections has overspent its budget by $277 million and has a surplus of more than 10,000 costly prison beds since passage of Proposition 36, which diverts some nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

Put it all together, and it is obvious that Gov. Gray Davis should not spend $595 million building a new state prison in the Central Valley town of Delano. Last month, a state Senate subcommittee scratching for funds to restore some of the programs axed in the governor's new austerity budget suggested that construction at Delano at least be delayed.

None of the state's top legislative leaders, however, has seconded that recommendation. Legislators are clearly loath to antagonize Davis on this. The governor has been Delano's most ardent supporter since 1998, when the state was flush with cash and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. donated $2 million to his campaign. But in a year when his budget has come up $22 billion short, surely Davis can recognize that building Delano now would be a boondoggle. Facing similar fiscal crises, four Republican governors have recently closed prisons to save money.

Beyond the prison building issue, Davis so far has refused to consider even modest proposals to save money by handling nonviolent offenders in different ways. Half a dozen states, for example, have modified their sentencing laws in recent months to increase early releases and ramp up supervision of newly released inmates.

Davis' new budget pares only $6million from the state's $4.8-billion prison budget but slashes more than $900 million from what was originally proposed for education and $200 million from health and welfare.

Davis had to make some hard choices in fashioning his revised budget, and in large part he made sensible ones. But he has a blind spot when it come to prisons and the guards' union. There comes a time when a responsible governor says "no" to even the most supportive and generous interest group.

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