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Politicizing prisons

February 23, 2006

SENDING 1,300 INMATES IN L.A. County jails back to state prisons, as the Board of Supervisors proposed Tuesday, is sort of like pitching them from one burning building to another. As bad as the overcrowding, understaffing and inmate violence are in the county jails, the dysfunctional state prison system is hardly an improvement. But the move does at least help focus the political spotlight where it belongs: on a state bureaucracy that is a big contributor to the county's corrections nightmare.

State prisons are already overflowing, with twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold, so the state may fight the county's move. The county has a $27-million contract to hold state prisoners who are either parole violators or felons with less than a year left on their sentences; supervisors voted Tuesday to cancel it as a way of improving supervision of the county's burgeoning inmate population.

There are on average about 21,000 inmates a day in L.A. County jails, and fewer than 3,000 deputies and civilian employees to guard them -- a frighteningly unbalanced ratio. Part of the reason for the huge and growing jail population is a series of get-tough-on-crime laws passed since the 1980s. But another is the gross inadequacy of rehabilitation programs at state prisons, including wrongheaded approaches to parole violators, youth offenders and women.

California has the second-highest recidivism rate in the United States. Only 21% of the state's parolees successfully complete their term of supervision, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The returnees have to be processed at county jails, so both systems pay the price.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed many sensible reforms to reduce recidivism and lower the prison population, only to be thwarted at every turn by the politically powerful state prison guards union -- which opposes anything that could jeopardize jobs for its members.

In 2004, pressure from the union was a factor in the state's decision to close 300 vocational education programs in the prisons -- programs that gave inmates badly needed job skills. Last year, in a move also backed by the guards, the state ended a program that sent nonviolent parole violators to community-based rehabilitation centers or to home detention.

Schwarzenegger hasn't given up trying, partially because he's bound by court orders and settlement agreements to improve prison conditions. He recently released plans to better house and rehabilitate youth offenders, whose experience with the state correctional system too often helps mold them into career criminals, and to move nonviolent female inmates to private community centers. Both proposals are in for a battle as the prison guards' political lackeys in both parties stand up against them.

Enough. Schwarzenegger needs to find the backbone to support these reforms with what political capital he has left. And Californians can help by letting their representatives in Sacramento know that improving conditions in the state's prisons is a priority.

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