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Raising the bars

If Sacramento fails to find a solution to prison overcrowding, expect a spike in newly released felons.

March 30, 2007

CONSIDER HOW CRIME in Los Angeles might be affected if the streets were suddenly flooded with thousands of felons released from state prison all at once. Now consider that this could well happen within the next two months if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature can't hammer out a comprehensive plan to relieve prison overcrowding.

Capitol insiders had high hopes that a prison compromise could be finalized this week, before today's start of the Legislature's weeklong spring recess. That didn't happen, which is a little scary for anyone with a calendar. Three federal judges are mulling requests for caps on the prison population, which stands at 172,000 in a system built for 100,000. One of the judges has demanded that the governor present a reform plan by May 16.

If a cap on the prison population is set somewhere between the two numbers -- say, at 130,000 -- that would almost certainly mean early release for the excess inmates, a high percentage of whom hail from Southern California. They would be heading home with a bus ticket and little else, except for maybe some new gang connections made behind bars.

The judge's deadline has helped belatedly focus the minds of lawmakers and prison interest groups. Even the notorious prison guards union has made noises about playing nice. In the past, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has spent its considerable campaign war chest fighting attempts to shorten sentences for nonviolent criminals while backing tough-on-crime laws and blocking the most minor solutions to overcrowding, such as the governor's attempt to send some inmates to prisons in other states. Yet the organization is now collaborating with longtime opponents to create a sentencing reform commission for nonviolent felons.

An impartial commission is a good idea. The trouble is that there have been dozens of good ideas recommended by various studies and state panels over the last decade, only to be ignored by politicians cowed by crime-wary voters and the influence-exerting guards union. The guards, like other late-breaking "reformers," might just be trying to create a paper trail of deniability before judges step in and announce unpopular, draconian measures.

Schwarzenegger has been a more convincing reform advocate; his latest proposal calls for relaxing sentencing and parole rules and providing community-based facilities for the least dangerous criminals and more prison drug-rehab and job-training programs. Schwarzenegger also wants to spend $11 billion to build 78,000 jail and prison beds.

But time is running out. Republicans and some moderate Democrats aren't wild about appearing soft on crime. But they will be even less wild about the reaction they get from voters in the event that one of the early release inmates ends up killing someone. That's a scenario Sacramento should ponder over spring break.

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