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Battle Looms Over Prison Spending in State Budget

January 22, 2003|Dan Morain and Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Facing a historic fiscal crisis, California Gov. Gray Davis is calling for deep cuts to schools, health care for the poor and scores of other programs. But one corner of government is being spared such pain: the state's sprawling prison system.

Davis, a Democrat who treasures his law-and-order image, actually wants to boost Department of Corrections spending in the coming year, though modestly. The governor proposes opening a new prison, building a $160-million department headquarters and remodeling San Quentin's deteriorating death row.

Critics are angry about what they see as an inequity, and a state Senate subcommittee will meet today to begin paring back the $5.2-billion prison budget. But many analysts say the only way to make meaningful cuts is to do what has been politically unthinkable in California for a quarter of a century: Put more felons back on the street.

Some other hard-pressed states have begun to do just that, permitting some lightweight offenders to go free before their terms are up. Davis, however, views such steps as perilous and is unwilling to take them.

"If people can find other reductions that don't compromise public safety, I'm open to that," Davis said. "But I don't favor letting prisoners out earlier."

Most lawmakers appear to agree. But an influential group from Davis' own Democratic Party say the budget crisis demands a look at cost-cutting alternatives to incarceration -- in particular, the early release of some nonviolent or elderly convicts.

"We've been a law-and-order state -- building more prisons, locking up more and more people for life, making penalties tougher and tougher," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who heads the Senate's prison oversight committee. "But in a lot of ways, we've been tough on crime without thinking through the consequences."

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), frequently at odds with Davis, is leading the voices suggesting it is time for a look at early releases. At his request, prison officials have prepared a list of options that, if fully implemented, could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Burton says he is not contemplating "letting Charlie Manson out of jail." But he argues that there is no reason to imprison people convicted multiple times of petty theft, also known as shoplifting. Corrections officials estimate that 2,120 people -- enough to fill about half of a prison -- are serving time for petty theft with a prior offense. Eliminating state prison as an option for those people would save the state $14 million.

Burton also raises the possibility of freeing inmates who have up to 13 months remaining on their sentences, saving the state $132 million next year. The proposal would exclude those convicted of serious or violent felonies and sex crimes.

"Their budget is going to get real scrutiny, and there will be reductions," said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who sits on the subcommittee that will take up the issue today. She believes there may be cheaper and more effective alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders and elderly inmates.

Prison officials caution that releasing prisoners early may not save as much money as some lawmakers hope; rather, it could add to local law enforcement costs as some of those paroled early cause trouble in the communities that receive them.

"It isn't just as simple as letting people out," said Stephen Green, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees the prison system. "The infrastructure we have for parolees is already very thin. If we dump a bunch more people out there, they will need help, or they will prey on the most vulnerable in these local communities."

Green added that the $40-million spending increase proposed for prisons is compelled by a rising inmate population, while the new headquarters, a maximum-security prison at Delano and the $220-million rebuilding of San Quentin's death row are being financed with bond money that cannot be used for other projects.

A decade ago, California's prison budget was $2.6 billion, half its current size, and there were 109,000 inmates in 24 prisons. Today, there are 160,000 felons in 33 lock-ups.

Mirroring the system's expansion has been the growth of the prison, parole and California Youth Authority work force. It has ballooned by 50% in the last decade to 50,000 this year. The overall state work force grew much more slowly -- by 22% -- during that time, according to the Department of Finance.

Nationally, the population of state prisons has surged as well, with corrections consuming an ever larger share of state revenue. The National Assn. of Budget Officers estimates that about 7% of state general funds are used for penal systems. California spends almost 9% of its general fund, the part of the budget used for schools, parks and health care.

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