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June 13, 2009 -- Wall Street Journal (US)

California Inmate Plan Draws Ire

Amid Budget Woes, Schwarzenegger Proposes Steering Future Convicts to County Jails

By Bobby White

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

California spent the past two decades making criminals pay ever-higher prices for their misdeeds, with stricter enforcement and stiffer sentences. Now, the high price of housing its inmate population has the cash-strapped state looking to dump thousands of future convicts into crowded local jails. The proposal is part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to help Sacramento overcome a $21 billion budget deficit projected for the fiscal year beginning in July. The governor wants to change sentencing guidelines so that offenders who commit such low-level felonies as auto theft or drug possession could be charged with only misdemeanors -- allowing them to serve sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

Local law-enforcement officials warn that an influx of new inmates could force them to release their own prisoners to make room. Changing sentencing guidelines would eventually steer 20,000 inmates away from state prisons to county jails, Mr. Schwarzenegger estimates. California's county jails now hold about 80,000 inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Mr. Schwarzenegger estimates the plan would save the state about $1.1 billion over the next three years. If state lawmakers approve the idea, along with a range of other options being negotiated -- such as closing state parks and cutting school budgets -- it could be in place as early as July. "To achieve the level of savings necessary without borrowing or tax increases, there are only so many places in the general fund to look," said Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Mr. Schwarzenegger. "These are proposals to save precious dollars without endangering public safety."

Local governments are hurting for money as badly as the state is -- with some of the pain coming as a result of reduced state funding. Many have cut budgets for their own local jails and detention facilities. "It's like a double whammy the state is sending our way," said Mike Reagan, a Solano County supervisor. "More prisoners and less money -- this is going to hurt like hell."

Mr. Reagan estimated his county would need to take an additional 1,200 inmates a year under Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan. That would overwhelm its jail system, which has reached capacity at 1,000 inmates, he said. Earlier this year, Solano approved plans to build a 1,000-bed facility. But the county scuttled the project after it was forced to slash $33 million from its $266 million general fund. If lawmakers approve Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan, Mr. Reagan said, Solano will have to release low-level prisoners to accommodate the new inmates.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Friday that Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan would "result in the undesirable release of some offenders." Los Angeles County has the state's largest jail system, with seven facilities housing nearly 20,000 prisoners.

The L.A. County system is already near its court-ordered capacity cap, said sheriff's department spokesman Steve Whitmore. The governor's proposal could result in about 4,000 more inmates sent to county jails every year, he said, and "there is no place to put those inmates."

Larry Lees, a Shasta County administrative officer, said his county didn't expect to receive new funding to deal with more prisoners and also might have to institute early-release policies to make room. Shasta's jails were already hurting. The county sheriff's department issued 25 layoff notices in May after being ordered to cut 10% of its $38 million budget. Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said he was weighing whether to close a floor of his jail and release 150 inmates.

Paul Golaszewski of the state Legislative Analyst's Office, a nonpartisan financial and policy-advisory agency, said counties also might need to give probation to some criminals, rather than jail sentences. Statewide organizations representing police chiefs, county sheriffs, district attorneys and probation officers are pushing Mr. Schwarzenegger to reconsider the proposal, saying it would be disastrous for dozens of cities and counties.

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the organization opposed the governor's proposal. Mr. Corcoran said most of the state's county jails can't support the potential influx: "It's at best disingenuous and at worst a flat out lie to say local jails can accommodate a host of new prisoners." The state spends $10 billion a year on its 33 prisons, which house about 160,000 inmates.

In addition to changing sentencing guidelines, Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan also calls for deporting 19,000 illegal-immigrant inmates, as well as allowing some low-level offenders to serve the final year of their sentences under house arrest. It also called for reducing such inmate-rehabilitation programs as substance-abuse counseling and vocational training. Together, the cuts would save California about $3 billion over the next three years, says the state finance department.

The governor's plan also helps another problem: a federal court in February ordered that the state-prison population be reduced by 55,000 inmates within three years to relieve overcrowding, as well as poor medical and mental-health care.

"A lot of people just can't grasp how bad it is right now," said Bernard Melekian, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, "but when you look at the situation it's quite clear what the governor is asking for is not realistic."

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