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A new face at corrections

Jeffrey Beard has the experience, but leading California's troubled prison system is no easy task.

January 02, 2013
  • Jeffrey Beard has served as a prison warden and spent nearly a decade in charge of the state prison system in Pennsylvania.
Jeffrey Beard has served as a prison warden and spent nearly a decade in charge… (Pennsylvania Department…)

If confirmed by the state Senate, Jeffrey Beard would bring a formidable background and germane experience to his new post as head of the state's Department of Corrections. Beard has served as a prison warden and spent nearly a decade in charge of the state prison system in Pennsylvania. Moreover, he's been an advocate of alternative sentencing and other innovative ideas to reduce prison populations and experiment with ways to cut down on recidivism, both of which are challenges facing California.

But just because Beard is a good choice for the job doesn't mean the job is going to be easy, even for him. The difficulties confronting California's prison system are enormous and consequential, with ramifications for the state budget and public safety. A few of the most pressing demands:

• Classifying inmates correctly. As California undertakes realignment — wherein the state is shifting responsibility for some lower-level offenders from prison to county jails and counties are moving some of their prisoners out of custody and onto probation — an essential safeguard is that inmates are properly classified.

That's key because it ensures that those released to lower-level institutions or turned over to probation departments are ones who pose relatively little threat to the public — those convicted of what are known as non-serious, nonsexual, nonviolent offenses. But that breaks down if California improperly classifies those inmates, as it occasionally has in the past. Failing to administer classification well could expose the public to risk and undermine political support for realignment.

The Corrections Department is attempting to address this problem with a new classification system. Supervising that process and producing a reliable replacement to the current system should be high on Beard's to-do list.

• Easing overcrowding. California's prison population nearly tripled in 20 years, leaping from about 60,000 inmates in 1986 to an astounding 173,479 two decades later. That was costly and dangerous, as inmates were piled into gymnasiums and other areas not meant for housing. Even shipping some inmates to prisons outside California was not enough. In the end, it resulted in such inhumane conditions that inmates sued and won, the courts concluding that overcrowding was so severe that it deprived them of their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Beard knows about this problem firsthand, having serving as a consultant to the state prison system as it grappled with that lawsuit. And some progress has been made: The population today is about 40,000 inmates less than at its peak, and rooms once filled with bunk beds have been returned to their intended use. Still, it's only a beginning. The courts have ordered California to reduce its prison population to about 110,000, still well above the population it was built to hold. Realignment will help address that problem, but it won't do the whole job. For instance, nearly 10,000 California inmates remain incarcerated outside the state; they eventually should be returned, but that will add to the problems of crowding. Beard should press to end the state's resistance to the courts and pursue steps to protect the rights of inmates and reduce pressure on the system.

• Improving inmate services. California lawmakers don't like to be accused of coddling inmates, so they reflexively oppose programs for those behind bars. That's shortsighted and self-defeating. Access to drug rehabilitation and job training, for instance, help inmates to leave behind problems that encouraged their lawlessness.

• Staffing. All decisions about staffing in California are complicated by the political influence of the state prison guards union, which historically has favored prison construction and harsh sentencing schemes — job creators, from the perspective of those who work as guards.

Realignment introduces new complexities into that politicized environment. Shipping less-serious offenders to county facilities opens up space in the state system, but those who are left require supervision by qualified guards in safe environments. It will be tempting to simply boost the ratio of guards to inmates, a solution that would make the union happy and preserve employment for its members. But the state's budget problems have not disappeared, and Beard needs to manage this system efficiently as well as safely.

Few issues demand greater attention or are in need of more innovative thinking than those that surround criminal justice in California. Beard has his work cut out for him.

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