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Raising the bars

California's prison system is a mess, but the governor has finally proposed some intelligent fixes.

December 22, 2006

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER unveiled a new prison blueprint Thursday that balances a building program with smart policies like the creation of a commission to review sentencing and parole guidelines. It's about time.

We were beginning to worry that the California prison guards union was calling the shots. Not only does it enjoy great influence over state elections, it has apparently enjoyed veto power over the selection of prison managers -- including those overseeing contract negotiations.

That was the gist of federal court testimony Wednesday by two former prison administrators who resigned within months of each other earlier this year because they found it impossible to do their jobs in the face of union interference. Jeanne Woodford and Roderick Q. Hickman said that two of Schwarzenegger's closest aides turned down their choices for important posts in the prison system at the behest of union officials.

Schwarzenegger began reaching out to unions after his special election failure last year. In the case of the prison guards union, that apparently meant acceding to its every wish, no matter how destructive for taxpayers or the state's deeply troubled prison system.

The outreach effort doesn't seem to have worked in the case of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the formal name of the prison guards union. It ended up endorsing Democrat Phil Angelides in the governor's race. Schwarzenegger resoundingly beat Angelides in November, and as a result may feel emboldened to take on the union.

Last summer, the governor announced a simplistic plan to relieve overcrowding by building new prison facilities. It may be that California needs new prisons, but not as much as it needs reforms to its sentencing and parole rules, which would reduce the prison population, cut recidivism and make Californians safer from crime. Such reforms would be politically risky, however.

California has the worst recidivism rate in the nation, it faces a lawsuit over its jammed prison facilities and its prison healthcare system is so dangerously flawed that it had to be placed under receivership. We're glad the governor is finally getting on the right track to fix this mess.

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