Sacramento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared California's prison system dangerously overcrowded Monday and ordered a special legislative session to enact proposals to build new prisons and shift thousands of inmates from mostly rural prisons into new housing units in urban areas.
Less than a week after a court-appointed watchdog blasted the governor for abandoning prison reform, Schwarzenegger guaranteed a spotlight on prisons this year by calling for the special session, which will begin today and will allow bills to advance through the legislative process more quickly.
But administration officials conceded they had no legislation ready and details of the proposals -- such as how much the governor wants to spend and how many new cells they hope to create -- were not available. Some lawmakers reacted with skepticism.
"It seems like a rather obvious response to the report from last week," said Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee.
Speaking at a conference of state district attorneys in Newport Beach, Schwarzenegger characterized jam-packed prisons as being in crisis and warned that courts could take over the system and "order the early release of tens of thousands of prisoners."
He noted that a system designed to hold about 100,000 inmates houses more than 171,000, and more than 16,000 inmates are sleeping in gyms, dayrooms and other areas of lockups not intended for housing.
The governor proposed a four-pronged approach: building at least two new prisons; enacting rules to suspend some state laws to allow the new prisons to be built quickly; shifting 4,500 female inmates from prisons to community-based facilities closer to their families; and opening new facilities designed to help male inmates adjust to life outside prison.
The new housing for male inmates would serve inmates about to be paroled and would provide them with programs to help them get jobs and steer clear of crime.
The re-entry proposal and the idea to move some female prisoners would be a major change for the system, creating thousands of spots for inmates who would receive services like drug rehabilitation and job training that are not widely available in prisons. It could also shift a substantial number of inmates from rural areas, where most prisons are located, to urban areas, where the bulk of the prison population comes from.
That could lead to battles with local governments and residents about where the new facilities are located. Administration officials said the new lockups could house as many as 500 people. Acting Corrections Secretary Jim Tilton said he hoped to locate them in warehouse districts, not residential areas, and he admitted that finding sites for the mini-prisons would be a significant issue.
New community prisons could be built or run by private companies, although Tilton said state prison guards would provide security.
Schwarzenegger said his proposals were aimed at two critical problems: overcrowding and a recidivism rate he called the highest in the nation, noting that 70 percent of inmates end up back in prison.
The new proposals mark at least the third time Schwarzenegger has tried to revamp state prisons.
His administration promised to reduce the inmate population in 2004 when it unveiled changes to parole policy intended to send parolees who failed drug tests or committed other parole violations to programs instead of back to prison. But that idea was scrapped amid opposition from victims' rights groups and the state's prison guards union and after Schwarzenegger's corrections secretary admitted the proposal was not well thought out.
Last year, the governor proposed a bureaucratic reshuffling that changed the name of the corrections department and gave more clout to the head of the department.
Legislators were quick to remember those moves.
"The track record of the department of corrections has not been stellar," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, who acts as the Assembly Republicans lead negotiator on prison issues. "They've come up with reforms in the past, where they weren't capable of implementing them."
Spitzer said he would evaluate the new proposals with significant skepticism.
Schwarzenegger has pitched some of the proposals before. He included prison-building in his January proposal to issue bonds for new roads, schools and levees, and he also proposed moving some female inmates out of prisons.
The Legislature balked at both ideas, and whether there will be more interest now remains to be seen.
Some lawmakers said more policy changes were needed to lower the inmate population.
"We can look at bricks and mortar, but we have to look at sentencing reform and parole reform -- that's where change is needed," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who carried unsuccessful legislation this year that would have amended the state's three-strikes law to lessen the use of lengthy sentences for some non-violent offenses.
Romero was also critical of the governor's proposal Monday to use a specific type of bond, called a lease-revenue bond, to build prisons that wouldn't require voter approval. The bonds could be issued with approval from lawmakers.
"That's just a way of getting around voters, with polls showing no one is interested in building more prisons," she said.
A spokesman for the prison guards union, which has considerable clout in the Legislature, reacted more positively.
"Given the overcrowding, this is a welcome signal from the administration," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Administration officials said they had been contemplating calling a special session on prisons for several weeks and denied the announcement Monday was a response to the report issued last week. In the report, a special master working for U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson criticized Schwarzenegger for bowing to pressure from the state's politically powerful prison guards union and warned that the governor was retreating from reforms.
The governor was quickly attacked Monday by his adversary in this year's gubernatorial election, who noted that calling a special session would likely allow bills to become law only one month earlier than they would have under the normal legislative process.
State Treasurer Phil Angelides said Schwarzenegger was taking cosmetic action after presiding over a "meltdown of a prison system that is threatening our public safety."
Angelides offered no specifics as to how he would fix the system if elected, however, saying he would conduct an audit after taking office and then come up with a plan.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Monday for a special session of the Legislature to deal with state prisons. He proposes four ideas for lawmakers to consider:
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