Prison Reform Is in Danger

*Governor must not cave in to guards union.

By Joe Domanick, Commentary

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that "the purpose of corrections is to correct" and that he intended to reform California's hard-nosed prison and parole systems to place emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, it was a double-take moment that could have snapped your neck. After all, he is a Republican, and being tough on crime has been a signature issue for the GOP ever since presidential candidate Barry Goldwater made law and order a top campaign issue in 1964.

But in his first months in office, Schwarzenegger has moved away from the GOP hard line, emerging as a champion of radical prison and parole reform in a tightly policed, tough-on-crime state with 32 state prisons, 140,000 men and women on probation or parole and more than 160,000 under lock and key.

And all the stars were aligned for his success: a bizarre recall election signaling voters' disgust with the status quo; a $7-billion-a-year corrections system that was hemorrhaging money; and a judge threatening to place the entire system under federal monitoring. It was a scenario under which real reform, so highly implausible just two years ago, might actually happen.

But will it? Two weeks ago, in an unpromising omen, the state Department of Corrections announced it was abandoning a program that diverted parolees who had committed minor parole violations to halfway houses or home detention. This was a serious matter. Before the program, as many as 70,000 California parolees were being sent back to prison annually, while just 21% were completing parole. The move to abandon the program probably violated a Department of Corrections court settlement promising to decrease the state's unconscionably overcrowded prison population. Schwarzenegger's aides said the program's curtailment was not a sign of a policy shift. It's just that the program wasn't working. Schwarzenegger says he still supports reform.

But the winds of change are blowing backward for the governor these days. Schwarzenegger's designation of nurses, firefighters, teachers and police officers' widows as "special interests" to be fought looks ridiculous while he's hosting dinners and smiling as the GOP special-interest fat cats pay $89,000 a plate to have their pictures taken with him. As a result, he's now beating a rapid retreat on his legislative attacks on the state's public service unions.

That's bad as far as his prison reform agenda is concerned because for decades the mighty, 32,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. (the state prison guards union) has been the biggest impediment to reform of a corrections system so scandal-plagued that a report commissioned by the new governor described it as "dysfunctional â€" with little accountability, no uniformity or transparency, too much political interference, too much union control and too little management courage."

But the prison guards union loses if Schwarzenegger's reform agenda of lowering the prison population and decreasing costs takes hold. Contractually, there is one guard for every six new prisoners. The more prisoners, the more guards and money and power for the union. It's as simple as that. Union leaders are determined to throw a monkey wrench into the governor's grand scheme. They've unleashed their creature, "Crime Victims United" (heavily subsidized by the union) to oppose reform, and the corrections department's decision to rescind the parole plan was their first success.

For more than 20 years, the prison guards have kept Democratic and Republican governors and state legislators â€" be they Bay Area liberals or rural archconservatives â€" obsequiously grateful for their big campaign contributions and petrified, at the same time, that the union would oppose them. If Schwarzenegger is to make fundamental change, he will have to spend a lot of political capital fighting the union. So far he's talked a good game, but actions speak louder than platitudes. He had no problem dampening his reform urges in 2004, for example, when he succumbed to pressure from the criminal justice and political establishment and opposed softening California's draconian three-strikes law â€" a law that was sending thousands of people to prison for 25 years to life for small-time drug possession and petty theft. Many of these third-strikers were ripe for rehab, but Schwarzenegger conveniently ignored that fact and starred in fear-mongering television ads that crushed the initiative.

Despite that, let's remember what's at stake here: a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Californians to derail a gut-reaction, political-pandering, failed solution to crime and drug addiction and to replace it with smarter, more effective, more humane policies based on proven social-science data. Of all the initiatives the governor's instituted, this is the one that needs to be supported.

Joe Domanick is a senior fellow at USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism.

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

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