SACRAMENTO - California's $6-billion correctional system, once a national model, is a failure on most fronts and should be placed under the control of a civilian commission, a report by a team of experts appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger concluded Thursday. Led by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, the panel said that only a radical restructuring of leadership can repair a prison system plagued by runaway costs, a high rate of repeat offenders and abusive officers who often go unpunished.
"Management in corrections has been deficient and dysfunctional," said Deukmejian, a conservative on law-and-order issues who oversaw the rapid expansion of state prisons in the 1980s. "It's extremely important that we have an independent commission to lead the way and monitor what's going on."
Schwarzenegger's aides moved quickly Thursday to dismiss the central recommendation of the governor's handpicked panel.
Giving oversight power to a civilian commission, spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said, "would reduce accountability for the governor and grant it to a politically appointed board."
Aside from that, she said, the report offered "many laudable and practical solutions that will help assure the correctional system protects public safety" and better prepare inmates for freedom.
The exhaustive report, which contains 239 recommendations as disparate as employee ethics and the use of satellites to track high-risk parolees, will be the subject of public hearings in August.
Many of the reforms would require the Legislature's approval, Carbaugh said, but some could be included in the governor's budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year.
Criminal justice experts applauded the report's conclusion that more education, drug treatment and job-training programs are essential to cut the proportion of parolees who fail and return to prison.
"This is a breath of fresh air and the sort of reforms that we have been looking for for many years," said Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
He said that the panel's recommendation to "move back to a rehabilitation model" is something that has won substantial public support in recent opinion polls.
But state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) expressed disappointment. "This is less about blowing up boxes than about rearranging the chairs on a Titanic that we are promised will be leakproof," she said. "My initial thought is: Is this all there is?"
State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) added that while the panel's work marks "an outstanding step forward" in resolving the prison crisis, the civilian commission does not make sense.
"I can see an advisory commission, but not a commission to hire and fire an inspector general," she said. "They will be civilians with no experience in the prison system."
With 40 adult and youth prisons, 308,000 inmates and parolees and about 54,000 employees, California's system is the largest in the nation.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, the panel's report said, California was viewed as the national leader in corrections, "a jewel" that pioneered standards copied by other states. But now, the report said, the system falls short by almost every measure. It has been hit by a string of costly lawsuits - on inmate healthcare, treatment of disabled prisoners and conditions in juvenile lockups, among other issues - and a judge recently threatened to place the adult prisons under federal receivership.
Compounding the problems have been corrections managers who lack "the courage or integrity to stand up to political pressure," especially from the powerful prison guards union, the report said.
Shortly after his election, Schwarzenegger vowed to clean up the system and asked Deukmejian to investigate problems and suggest reforms.
For four months, a staff of 36 interviewed 470 experts, evaluated 400 reports and studied how things are done in the federal system and 25 other states. The result: Recommendations for change in everything from how wardens are picked to how long ex-convicts should be on parole.
"I was frankly stunned by the disarray and extent of problems," said the panel's executive director, Joe Gunn, who formerly held the same title at the Los Angeles Police Commission. "There is no accountability, no uniformity, no transparencyS. We are recommending a drastic reorganization of corrections."
Among the findings and suggestions:
The report also criticized rules that have led to increases in overtime and sick leave, as well as a contract requirement that managers give guards accused of misconduct details of the allegations before they meet with investigators.
"This practice encourages 'the code of silence' afflicting the state correctional system and could contribute to retaliation against 'whistle blowers,' " the report said.
The union's executive vice president, Lance Corcoran, said he was disheartened to see the attack on such contract provisions, noting that many were negotiated while Deukmejian was governor.
Training: The report condemned the training system for correctional officers, saying, "A hiring plan is nonexistent and background investigations for applicants are weak." The department of corrections, it said, spends about one-quarter as much time investigating job candidates as the Highway Patrol does.
Noting a "severe problem in recruitment of dedicated individuals," the report said that many officers either failed in attempts to get jobs with other law enforcement agencies or went into corrections solely for the competitive salary and benefits.
While exhaustive, the report is conspicuously silent on one point: cost.
Gunn said that forecasting the fiscal consequences of many of the reforms would take time, and that the panel's work was designed as a long-term blueprint.
Deukmejian acknowledged that the investment - in money and energy - would be substantial.
But he said public safety demands a change.
"We are a leadership state, and we demand a correctional system that reflects that," Deukmejian said. "But it will not happen overnight."
Recommendations on prison reform California's $6-billion prison system has 40 youth and adult prisons, about 54,000 employees and 308,400 inmates and parolees. Because of recent scandals, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked experts, headed by former Gov. George Deukmejian, to suggest reforms. Their report has 239 recommendations and can be found on the Internet at http://www.report.cpr.ca.gov/irp .
Among the report's goals:
Source: California Independent Review Panel
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