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STATE PRISONS' REVOLVING DOOR

Governor's Reform Option

August 30, 2004

When California legislators passed a bill last week to give prisoners the schooling and job training the state has denied them for decades, they didn't forget to call the media and predict that the legislation would trigger an "unprecedented shift" in the system, whose prisoners have the highest repeat offense rate of any state. They did neglect, however, to do one thing: come up with so much as a penny to pay for the reforms.

SB 1399 by state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) would require corrections officials to evaluate inmates' needs within 90 days of their incarceration, then tailor an educational program to them. The measure would allow inmates to get high school equivalency degrees or vocational training. It's an idea that would almost certainly save money in the long run through reduced recidivism; in the short term, however, it doesn't stand a chance without a funding mechanism.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger planned to veto the bill all along; his prison department inexplicably opposes it. But the Legislature's fiscal lapse (an Assembly analysis predicted it would cost at least $400 million a year to fund the programs) gives him an easy out: He can say the bill is an unfunded mandate.

The governor, however, shouldn't be let off the hook that easily. There is something he could do now, even in the absence of new funding, to generate revenue for prison rehabilitation: take some nonviolent inmates out of costly prison cells and subject them to "alternative sanctions" in the community.

Such sanctions don't amount to coddling criminals. "Restorative justice" programs, for example, require parolees to work to pay back their victims. Alternative sanctions, such as electronic monitoring and mandatory job-training programs in which offenders who don't show up are sent back to prison, can provide closer supervision than California's 112,000 parolees get today.

California now spends $900 million a year re-incarcerating prisoners, often just months after their release. Some of these repeat offenders are violent people who should be locked up. Most, however, are technical violators -- people who were late to a meeting with their parole officer, for instance -- who could be punished far more cheaply and effectively through alternative sanctions.

Eight months ago, Schwarzenegger administration officials promised to use those very sanctions to reduce the state's prison population from 162,000 to 147,000 by the end of this year, then pare it to 117,000 by the end of next year. But the prison population now stands at 163,500 because the governor hasn't even begun to debate which nonviolent offenders should be considered eligible for early release.

Schwarzenegger can't have it both ways; if he plans to veto Vasconcellos' bill, he had better start coming up with alternatives.

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