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Protesters attack gov.'s prison plans

Activists seeking reforms say more penitentiaries aren't the answer to overcrowding crisis. Lawmakers clash on issue inside Capitol.

March 29, 2007|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Busloads of protesters fighting the construction of new penitentiaries swarmed the Capitol on Wednesday, while inside the statehouse, the simmering politics surrounding the prison overcrowding crisis boiled into full view.

The protesters attacked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to build 78,000 new prison and jail beds, saying that $11 billion worth of "bricks and mortar and debt" are no substitute for true reform.

Instead, the demonstrators -- some dressed in orange prison jumpsuits and standing in makeshift cells -- said lawmakers could quickly thin the inmate population by releasing geriatric and incapacitated convicts and by sanctioning thousands of parole violators in their communities rather than in state lockups.

Meanwhile, political fireworks were flying over a decision by Senate Democrats to place a moratorium on bills that would lengthen criminal sentences and thereby exacerbate prison crowding.

The maneuver infuriated Republicans, but Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said it could not be "a business-as-usual year" in Sacramento given the overcrowding emergency.

"The Legislature bears a share of the responsibility for the crisis, and we must accept that," Romero said. "We can't keep having bills fly out of committee like pancakes just because we want to appear tough on crime."

Supported by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland, Romero said she would hold in her committee until next year any bill that would intensify crowding. Three measures -- two submitted by Democrats -- have been stalled so far, including one that would add five years to the sentence of those impersonating a police officer during a kidnapping or sex offense.

The Senate's top Republican, Dick Ackerman of Tustin, called the move irresponsible: "Our No. 1 priority is public safety and protecting California's citizens from bad guys. This move is not the way to relieve crowded prisons."

Citing conditions of "extreme peril" for inmates and officers alike, Schwarzenegger in October declared a state of emergency in the state's adult prisons. Roughly 172,000 inmates occupy space for 100,000, and some 16,000 convicts are sleeping in "ugly beds" -- those crammed into hallways, gyms, recreation rooms or other areas not designed for housing.

Corrections officials say they will be out of room for new inmates by the end of the year, raising the prospect that California's counties -- 20 of which have court-imposed population caps on their jails -- will have nowhere to send convicted felons.

With no relief in sight, lawyers for inmates with disabilities and medical and mental health problems have asked the courts to cap the prison population at a significantly lower level. Three federal judges are mulling those requests and will hold hearings in June. And one of the judges, Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, has given the Schwarzenegger administration until May 16 to present a plan to reduce the number of people behind bars.

Against that backdrop, the governor and legislative leaders have been negotiating a response to the crisis. Schwarzenegger said this week he hoped an agreement would be struck before the Legislature adjourned for spring break today.

Others close to the talks said progress had stalled, particularly over proposals seen as politically risky by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Ackerman said he hoped the parties were nearing agreement on one small-scale relief valve -- the movement of inmates to other states. Schwarzenegger already has ordered such transfers, and 360 prisoners have moved to private facilities in Arizona and Tennessee.

But a Superior Court judge last month halted the moves, ruling that the governor lacked the legal authority to authorize them.

Ackerman said lawmakers believe they could adopt language giving the governor temporary authority to arrange such transfers. Some Democrats, however, remain opposed.

Another controversial measure on the table is the diversion of thousands of parole violators now punished with short stays in prison. Some Democrats want those parolees whose violations are relatively minor to be sent to drug treatment centers or correctional facilities in their communities, rather than put in a state prison bed for three to five months. But Republicans and some moderate Democrats are leery.

"If some guy is 20 minutes late for his appointment with a parole agent, that's a true technical violation, and we will look at that," Ackerman said. "But it's my understanding that such cases are rare. Many of these parole violators are committing serious crimes and need to be sent back to prison."

As the talks continued, Assembly Republicans this week added a visual reminder of the crisis to the mix -- a poster titled "Countdown to Community Chaos!" Taped to GOP lawmakers' office doors, the posters feature monthly calendars with the date May 16 -- the federal judge's deadline -- highlighted in red.

One protester outside the Capitol predicted the threat of court action would not motivate lawmakers to act.

"Everybody is just waiting for the federal court to take over the system, and they are all polishing their finger getting ready to point it at whoever they plan to blame," said John Lum, former chief probation officer for San Luis Obispo County and a coordinator of Wednesday's event.

"It's a disgrace. The governor and Legislature keep stuffing people in the prisons but they refuse to take responsibility for the consequences."

jenifer.warren@latimes.com

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