You know it's time for change when the most vocal advocate for prison reform is the victim of a violent carjacking who helped send the criminal away for 12 hard years. Gloria Romero, the state Senate's majority leader and chair of a Senate subcommittee on corrections, was carjacked along with her then-pre-teen daughter, Soledad, at a fast-food drive-through in northeast Los Angeles nearly 10 years ago.
"It was ugly," says the veteran Democrat, sitting in her East Los Angeles district office. "And I went to court, and I testified, and our assailant was put into a California penitentiary. He got 12 years. You know what? He deserved it. What that man did to us was wrong and it was dangerous. So it's not about being soft on crime. But it is about saying that assailant is going to be back on the street some day. Do I want him to go after another mother and her child like he did with us? What do 12 years of prison mean?"
For Romero and a growing chorus of critics, California's prison system has become little more than an inhumane thug university, a place where convicts bottle up anger, beef up, and learn how to perpetrate more efficiently. It is the largest state penal organization in the United States, and while Californians might feel safer knowing that more bad guys and girls than ever are behind bars, the costs of keeping them there will soon come due. Already, the system's growing slice of the state budget, approaching $7 billion next year, has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger concerned. It costs nearly $31,000 a year to house one state prisoner, multiplied by a record-high population of 163,000 prisoners -more people than live in Pasadena. One inmate's annual price tag is more than enough to treat someone to a year of education at UCSD, room and board included. But with UCSD, we get a bright young mind who can help the state's economy soar. With prison, we get a 70-percent re-arrest rate-and in youths, it's even worse, with reports of a 75-percent re-arrest rate among juveniles who've left the California Youth Authority. The state has a daily parolee population of 103,000, one of the largest in the nation. After nearly three decades of anti-crime politics that loaded up the prison-industrial complex, we're at an unprecedented crossroads, when both sides of the political aisle are saying enough; it's expensive, ineffective, and perhaps inhumane. The Schwarzenegger juggernaut has put prison reform on the front burner.
"California was once the national leader, a pioneer in corrections integrity, innovation, and efficiency," the governor said in his recent State of the State address. "We can make it so once again."
The state's correctional system is at near double its intended inmate capacity; it has problems serving the medical and mental- health needs of prisoners; it treats women convicted of largely nonviolent drug offenses nearly the same as it does violent male offenders; it puts juveniles in prison-like housing where 23-hour lockdowns are common; and it has been home to prisoner abuse and officer corruption-some of it caught on tape. Just this week it was revealed that a guard at Centinela State Prison was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to smuggle drugs and cell phones to inmates.
But a big part of the problem is punishing and further hardening people-at a great cost-when they could be rehabilitated, says Romero. In her study of the prisons, she has come across an 83-year-old woman with extensive healthcare needs locked up for conspiracy in a crime her son committed, and a 14-year-old girl holed up in the California Youth Authority for being a lookout during a gang rape. It costs us more than $80,000 a year to keep the teenager there-good enough for a few years at Harvard. As it is, however, we don't do much as a state to keep her out.
"I looked at that kid, and I remember my heart broke when I met her," Romero says. "Little tiny thing. Ugly things have been done to her and she's done ugly things in return. But when you start looking at the backdrop of what her life has been like-her mother and her father are both gone, there's no family, she's on the street-until we deal with those realities of youth, we're going to keep finding kids like her at age 14 and 15 coming before us and us paying $80,000 a year to incarcerate them and not make any changes in their lives."
Too Much Influence
Last year, the state Independent Review Panel, chaired by former Gov. George Deukmejian, looked at the sorry state of the corrections system and found a lot to dislike.
"We found that everything was defunct," says panel Executive President Joe Gunn, formerly of the Los Angeles Police Commission. "They had no training, risk management, planning and research, the organization sucked, the unions were too powerful, the legislature had too much influence."
Schwarzenegger has also decried "too much political influence" in the prison system, and critics seem to agree with him that something needs to be done about the burgeoning, overcrowded and often mismanaged Department of Corrections and California Youth Authority. They disagree, however, on what road to take toward reform. One of the first steps, the governor recently proposed, is to place both programs under a Youth and Adult Correctional Agency run by a former guard handpicked by the governor, Rod Hickman, thus sharing a bureaucracy and saving some money. That scares some youth advocates, who feel the California Youth Authority is already too prison-like.
"It's a really bad idea," says Sue Burrell, advocate at the Youth Law Center/Children's Protective Legal Center in San Francisco, who submitted testimony on the governor's plan to the state's Little Hoover Commission this week. "A lot of the problems have to do with treating kids as they would in the punitive adult system. But there's nothing in this plan that indicates they want to do anything different. It seems like a missed opportunity."
In fact, while the governor talks reform, his budget proposal for next year would gut most of the state's Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act funding-cutting $75 million of its $100 million budget. Critics fear this will send more wards to the prison-like CYA, where they'll join gangs, learn how to become better criminals, and likely end up in adult prisons someday.
Many would like to see the CYA become more like Missouri's youth corrections system, which has college-educated "youth specialists" instead of guards, smaller facilities, no prison-style uniforms, and a low, 8-percent recidivism rate. This week, Romero proposed changes that would inch the CYA closer to the Missouri model. She wants to close a troubled facility in Stockton, put female wards in state-funded county programs, shape new and existing facilities into a 40-ward-per-unit system, end 23-hour lockdowns, and eliminate the wards' prison-style uniforms.
While the governor is thinking of finally transforming the state corrections system into something more than a crime school-he's talking about a fundamental shift toward rehabilitation instead of just punishment-perhaps foremost on the minds of reformers and the Schwarzenegger administration alike is reforming parole, which could let some pressure out of the prison population and cut costs. The Little Hoover Commission has called the state's parole system a "billion-dollar failure" and noted that California leads the nation in re-arrests among parolees. It's an expensive revolving door. Already Schwarzenegger has proposed trimming the rolls of parolees by 6.7 percent next year, cutting some parolees completely loose if they demonstrate trustworthiness. Romero would like to see more nonviolent offenders released from prison and paroled early as well. As many as 25,000 of the system's 163,000 inmates could be considered "non-dangerous," administration sources told The Sacramento Bee recently. But it's an issue the Schwarzenegger administration has waffled on, first saying it's on the table, then saying it's not.
"It's not just blanket early parole, but meaningful good policy based on the possibility of least risk for all concerned, and we can find those," Romero argues.
Also at issue is the Department of Corrections' insistence on separating new prisoners by race at adult prison reception centers, an unwritten policy yet to be challenged by the Schwarzenegger administration. In fact, President George W. Bush's Department of Justice has argued against the California practice in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Department of Corrections says the sorting is a necessary evil to protect prisoners from interracial violence perpetrated by ethnically based prison gangs. But Romero argues that the policy might actually exacerbate the prison gang problem by delivering recruits straight to the doorstep of the bad boys. "No other prison system in the country, including the federal Bureau of Prisons, does it," she says.
So far, the governor's own ideas for reforming corrections, both adult and youth, seem vague. Some critics fear that his vision of reform lacks the teeth of civilian oversight and would increase the number of private prisons.
After commissioning the Deukmejian blue-ribbon panel to find the best ways to reform corrections, Schwarzenegger eschewed the group's top recommendation -that the chain of command in prisons should ultimately lead to independent civilian oversight. Chief among the more than 260 recommendations of the panel was to have the governor create a five-person, non-politician civilian commission that would be empowered with making broad changes to the state prison system, including bureaucratic streamlining, increased rehabilitation, and smarter parole. Under this recommendation, Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Hickman-whose ultimate power over adult and juvenile corrections is still under consideration by the legislature-would have reported to the commission instead of to the governor.
"The governor picks five individuals who are confirmed by the senate who are not running for office," says Gunn of the Deukmejian panel. "There has to be a buffer between the politicians, the prison, and the guards' union. The governor's staff didn't like it, obviously the prisons secretary didn't like it. We called it the linchpin of our recommendations. We feel like 10 years from now they'll convene another group to study this."
Arnold's Special Interests
Romero, who will perhaps have the most legislative power when dealing with the governor on prison reform, is hot and cold on Arnold. She's happy that he's using his bully pulpit and speaking up, unhappy with some of the results so far.
"I will always give credit to this governor for having the courage to take on reform in the prison system," says Romero, who will also chair the budget subcommittee on corrections. "No one else has done it. The question is where does that conversation take us, down the road? That's the fight going on right now."
Indeed, while some credit the governor for finally putting a spotlight on the overburdened, under-performing prison-industrial complex, some accuse him of being a man of "talk" without "any walk," as state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) told a reporter recently.
Schwarzenegger has come under fire for his recent decision to reopen two privately run low-security prisons, sans a bidding process. Critics fear that Schwarzenegger is showing his true pro-business leanings at a time when prisons and the state budget need less pork. What's more, one of the companies that got the governor's go-ahead to run a reopened facility, GEO Group Inc., gave $58,000 to Schwarzenegger's campaign committees in 2003. And, according to the Los Angeles Times, the governor's recent Department of Finance director, Donna Arduin, moved to the board of directors of a GEO spin-off, Correctional Properties, that is the brick-and-mortar owner of the private prison. For Schwarzenegger, who repeatedly vowed to cut off the gubernatorial influence of special interests, the deal doesn't bode well. Romero, for one, has asked a state auditor to investigate the reopening of the two private prisons. "This deal was signed and delivered without any legislative oversight, lending to the perception that state government is a revolving door of quick deals that lack scrutiny and integrity," she said.
"This may foreshadow the introduction of more private prisons in the state," warned Sharon Dolovich, UCLA professor of law and prison policy.
With private prisons, the professor sees the same self-serving influence of the very prison-industrial complex that the governor has promised to deflate in the name of efficiency. Schwarzenegger has refused to take campaign contributions from the powerful guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). But Dolovich argues that private prison companies have the same moneyed interest in maintaining the growth of prison populations.
"The private prisons industry was one of the key supporters of the 1994 Three Strikes initiative," Dolovich says. "These corporations also have a financial interest in increased rates of incarceration."
The governor stood up to the union last year when he got back $108 million in salary concessions, solid savings for the taxpayers. But Schwarzenegger's deal with the guards alarmed a U.S. District Court judge so much that he threatened to put state prisons under receivership. Judge Thelton E. Henderson said the deal gave guards management control, an accusation that the Schwarzenegger administration denied.
Romero was so appalled that she wrote a bill that would have killed a key provision of Schwarzenegger's deal, fine print that requires information gathered during internal investigations of guards to be turned over to the officers being probed. "That provision of the contract, to me, is unlawful, illegal and I do believe it needs to change," she says. Her bill, however, didn't make it in the state Assembly.
Critics have called the CCPOA one of the main reasons the state corrections system is consistently millions of dollars over budget each year, with a lot of the spending going to overtime, medical leave and "fitness pay." Guards with 10 years experience make a base of nearly $60,000 a year, reportedly the highest such salary in the nation. Some credit the union with helping the Department of Corrections budget balloon from $923 million in 1985 to nearly $6 billion today, although many others point to the burgeoning prison population as the main culprit. The CCPOA has been pro-prisons since the early '90s, helping staunch anti-crime candidate Pete Wilson win the governorship with a then-unprecedented $1-million-plus in campaign contributions. The union was also instrumental in backing the Three Strikes law. A union spokesman did not return CityBeat's calls.
"The union supports sentencing policies that will lead to more people in prison because it benefits their members," says Dolovich.
Still, as Romero and others point out, it's a tough job being a prison guard in an era of high public support for harsh punishment. It puts the guards on the front lines of dealing with people no one else wants to see. The fatal stabbing of guard Manuel A. Gonzalez at the Chino Institution for Men earlier this month highlighted the grave dangers of working on the inside, and it revealed problems with the bureaucracy and the union's influence. Warden Lori DiCarlo, reportedly with input from union representatives, held back on distributing 300 stab-resistant vests being stored at Chino, fearing that it wouldn't be fair to hand them out to some but not all 900 officers at the prison. But the union blames Schwarzenegger's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency secretary, Hickman, saying he's bred a culture of hostility toward guards by aggressively investigating officer misconduct, putting them on the defensive in an offensive world.
The stabbing suspect, Jon Christopher Blaylock, had been in a lower-security reception center at Chino for six months-three months more than the rules allow-despite having been handed a Three Strikes conviction worth 75 years for attempted murder of a cop. Officials said the 35-year-old prisoner had mental health problems that made him hard to place in the overburdened system. Romero says she's looking into whether Blaylock was receiving proper medication for his mental health condition at the time of the alleged crime.
"Every inmate coming into prison starts at the reception center, where they're supposed to be basically diagnosed, and their records are supposed to be read to figure out where to send them," Romero says. "An inmate is only supposed to spend 90 days in a reception center. The suspect was there for six months. That is a breakdown right away. On top of that, it is my understanding that this inmate had mental illness issues. If that was the case, he should not have been languishing in a reception center for six months. We have facilities. For the safety of everyone around him, inmates and guards as well as that inmate himself, he shouldn't have been there. On top of that, although it's not certain yet, there's even a question as to whether this inmate was receiving his medication. Those are major issues."
The People's Choice
The seeming chaos that comes with bursting prison populations is the result, ultimately, of the will of the people. In 1977, the state passed a "determinate sentencing law" that took flexibility out of prison terms and had felons serving most, if not all, of their minimum time. With the crack-fueled crime epidemic of the '80s, followed by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, state voters demanded more from the justice system, and even Democratic politicians in largely left-leaning California marched to the law-and-order drumbeat. The 1994 Three Strikes law, which means a minimum of 25 years behind bars for a third felony conviction, violent or not, has been responsible for putting 42,000 people behind bars -nearly 25 percent of today's prison population. It is, as UCLA's Dolovich says, "the biggest culprit" when it comes to prison overcrowding. The Justice Policy Institute estimates the law has also cost Californians an extra $8.1 billion to house third strikers.
For those who want to reform the state prison system, relaxing Three Strikes so it applies only to those convicted of violent felonies would be a smart start in reducing the population behind bars. But Proposition 66, which would have done just that, was turned down by voters in November after Schwarzenegger, under pressure from his party's right wing, aimed his publicity and cash machine against the initiative. Before the governor's move, polls showed healthy support for the measure.
"The public is easily manipulated into endorsing tough-on-crime measures," UCLA's Dolovich says. "There's some sense of satisfaction that is completely unrelated to their own personal security. Often the demands for tough punishments don't really correlate to the crimes being punished. I think the single thing that California needs if it's going to reform its sentencing policies is leadership, and we lack leadership. We need political leaders who are willing to tell the public straight up about the consequences of tough sentencing."
If anything, Romero argues, the overpopulated state of our prisons ultimately lies at the feet of an often paranoid and sometimes shortsighted public.
"We have to look at us," she says. "We might feel good about saying we have them all locked up. But then we have to realize we're not building schools, we're not investing in diversion programs, after-school programs, our emergency rooms are shutting down, our roads are falling apart. At a certain point, do we allow society to crumble so we can build prisons and fill them up?"