By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
LOS ANGELES, June 26 -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed a decade of California policy on Monday, calling for the construction of at least two more prisons and the addition of thousands of beds in existing facilities to deal with what he called "dangerously overcrowded" prisons.
In a speech at a convention of prosecutors in Newport Beach, Schwarzenegger (R) said that the state prison system has reached "a crisis point" and that he will call a special legislative session this summer to confront the problem. Only the federal prison system is larger than California's system.
Schwarzenegger, who is running for reelection this year, made his speech a week after a federal investigator released a report chiding the governor's administration for not carrying out reforms. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson has already placed the prison medical system under federal receivership. Schwarzenegger said "swift and dramatic action" is needed to avoid having the whole prison system be placed under federal control.
California houses more than 171,000 inmates, including, Schwarzenegger said, 16,300 placed in prison gyms and day rooms, making it the most overcrowded prison system in the nation. When Schwarzenegger rolled into office on the back of a recall election in 2003, one of his first promises was to reform the troubled prison system, but efforts have been stalled, the judicial report said, by bureaucratic ineptitude at the Department of Corrections and opposition from the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- the union that represents the state's 31,000 prison guards.
California went through an unprecedented prison-building boom in the 1980s and 1990s as the state, like the rest of the nation, turned tough on crime. But no new prisons have been approved since the mid-1990s. Overcrowding has worsened, making rehabilitation of prisoners all but impossible, experts say. The governor noted that California's recidivism rate is 70 percent, the highest in the nation.
Schwarzenegger said he wants the prisons to be built with lease-revenue bonds, a type of financing that does not require voter approval. In addition to building more prisons, California is considering paying other states to house the thousands of illegal immigrants in its prisons, according to a statement from the governor's office. More than 10 percent of California's prison population is in the United States illegally.
Schwarzenegger also vowed to create a program to prepare inmates for their release from prison with programs such as mental health counseling and life-skills training. Pre-release programs have become popular in recent years because some studies show that they help prepare inmates for a return to society. The governor said he plans to look into sending prisoners to private facilities -- a proposal that the prison guards union has fought strenuously for more than a decade. In addition, he repeated a promise, first made in January, to move 4,500 nonviolent female prisoners into local private facilities. Currently, women are housed together in California often regardless of the seriousness of their crimes.