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Shift in Inmate Rehab Signaled

A bill to boost education and job training to cut recidivism is approved. Critics decry the cost.

August 25, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Signaling a sharp turn in attitudes about rehabilitating state prisoners, lawmakers Tuesday approved a sweeping new program to give inmates more schooling and job training to better prepare them for release.

By the slimmest of margins, the state Assembly endorsed a bill aimed at reducing the huge proportion of ex-convicts who commit new crimes or parole violations and wind up back behind bars. If signed by the governor, the bill would trigger "an unprecedented shift" in the mission of state prisons, an Assembly analysis said.

"Our recidivism rate is enormously high," said the bill's author, Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara). "Most of these guys are coming back out to live among us, and it's in our best interest to do whatever we can to make sure they lead safe, constructive lives."

The Vasconcellos legislation was among dozens bills approved by the Senate and Assembly as they faced a deadline next week to end their session for the year. On Tuesday, lawmakers voted to list sex offenders on the Internet, allow hybrid cars in carpool lanes, give inheritance rights to children conceived from frozen sperm and eggs after a parent has died, issue alerts about irradiated food in school cafeterias, and curb the listing of cellphone numbers in public directories.

One of the tightest votes in the lower house came on the inmate rehabilitation bill, SB 1399, which would dramatically change how most of the state's 164,000 inmates spend their time.

In recent years, budget cuts have reduced convicts' access to education programs, with only about one in four inmates finding slots. Critics say such limitations are foolhardy, given research showing lower reincarceration rates for prisoners who attend classes.

In a 2003 report, the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission faulted the state for poorly preparing inmates for life on the outside and operating a "revolving door" prison system. The report said that when released, 10% of California parolees are homeless, 50% are illiterate, 80% are unemployed, and as many as 80% abuse drugs.

Vasconcellos said his bill would ensure that each inmate's "shortcomings are addressed constructively in prison, right from the start, so we can help them succeed and stay out of trouble."

The bill would require corrections officials to evaluate inmates' educational and "psychosocial" needs within 90 days of their incarceration and tailor a schooling program for them, one that would include vocational training and high school equivalency degrees. The new approach would be phased in over three years beginning in January 2006, and would not apply to convicts on death row or those serving life without the possibility of parole.

A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the governor had no position on the bill. At the Department of Corrections, however, officials were opposed for fiscal reasons. They said the legislation would create an onerous and costly new burden, requiring them to craft an individualized education and job-training plan for each inmate.

"We are committed to providing a range of rehabilitation opportunities for inmates," said spokeswoman Margot Bach. "But this sort of individualized approach would be difficult, considering that we have 160,000 inmates."

Bach said no official cost estimate was available but said the changes would "run in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars." An Assembly analysis of the bill predicted costs of at least $400 million a year.

But supporters argued that the new approach would eventually save the state money as more and more parolees succeeded and stayed crime-free. They said similar programs in Ohio, Minnesota, Florida and Louisiana show that for every $1 spent on education, at least $2 would be saved on food and cell space alone.

"We have an extremely high rate of recidivism that is costing our society a tremendous amount of money as people go in and out of prison," said Linda Wanner of the California Catholic Conference, which represents the state's Catholic bishops. "If we invest in rehabilitation, we will come out ahead down the road."

The bill received the minimum votes needed to pass, 41, with 36 Democrats and five Republicans in support. Other GOP members called it ill advised at a time when public schools and other corners of state government were suffering cuts.

"I appreciate that men and women in institutions have needs, but I don't think they should have priority over my children, your children and children throughout the state," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City).

In another action related to prisons, the Senate voted 23 to 6 in favor of a bill by Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) that would ban smoking in all state lock-ups -- by inmates and employees. Smoking already is banned in 17 of the state's 32 prisons -- but only for inmates. Officials said that although such bans reduced the use of tobacco, they also created a lively black market for cigarettes.

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