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Prison break

Gov. Schwarzenegger rediscovers his boldness in pushing for California's first real reform in years.

January 17, 2007

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER is a medical paradox. Ever since breaking his leg, he has been strengthening his spine.

The reformer who came into office in 2003 with big ideas about fixing a badly broken prison system, then dropped them like 500-pound barbells in the face of the same drearily predictable political and union opposition that has turned California's system into a national disgrace, is suddenly returning to his old form.

Signs of the governor's rehabilitation emerged in December, when he proposed a prison plan dramatically different from his preelection focus on mere bricks and mortar. He still wants to build more facilities -- at a cost of $10.9 billion, to be funded largely by borrowing -- but his latest plan also tackles the state's highly flawed but politically sacrosanct sentencing and parole rules.

Most important, the budget blueprint he unveiled last week calls for eliminating parole for nonviolent ex-convicts. In California, almost everyone released from prison goes on parole for at least three years regardless of the crime or risk of another offense -- an unusually harsh condition matched by only one other state. By focusing on so many ex-cons, we waste tax dollars that would be far better spent tracking the truly dangerous, instead of creating a revolving door for our prisons. It's no accident that California has the nation's worst recidivism rate.

About 70,000 ex-cons in California return to prison each year because of parole violations. Research shows that about 20% of those have never committed a violent offense. Many are addicts who fail mandatory drug tests; others neglect to notify supervisors of an address change or commit some other minor infraction. Getting these people out of the system would free up time and money to supervise the worst ex-criminals while relieving the state's untenable and dangerous prison overcrowding.

Schwarzenegger also aims to transfer about half of the state's juvenile offenders to county lockups. This is a win-win situation on paper, though it could be disastrous if poorly implemented. Under the plan, counties would be amply reimbursed, and the state would still save money because its high-security facilities are very expensive to run under the conditions imposed by federal monitors. The troubled youths would also benefit by moving closer to their families, which improves their odds of going straight. Yet there are many questions about whether the counties have the infrastructure or personnel to make the plan work, and the Legislature has a nasty habit of contracting with municipalities for services and then cutting off the promised funding later.

As with all reforms, the success of the governor's prison plans will depend on how they're drawn up and implemented by bureaucrats and lawmakers. As general policies, though, they're among the best solutions to California's prison crisis we've seen from Sacramento in

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