By DON THOMPSON
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 8:21 PM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday signed a bill authorizing one of the largest prison construction booms in state history in hopes of satisfying federal judges who have demanded California address its severe prison crowding.
Schwarzenegger said the bipartisan $7.8 billion plan should go a long way to addressing the judges' concerns. He said the addition of 53,000 prison and county jail beds represents the biggest building commitment to California's corrections system in a generation, but key lawmakers and prison experts warned that it fails to solve the most pressing long-term problems.
The governor also said the plan contains provisions that will help inmates break a cycle: About 70 percent of ex-convicts return to prison after committing further crimes or parole violations. California's recidivism rate, one of the highest in the nation, is one reason the prison system is chronically crowded.
The plan signals "a monumental shift in how we manage prisons in California," Schwarzenegger said during Thursday's bill-signing ceremony.
"In the critical few months before an inmate is released, our re-entry facilities will focus on job training and placement, on education, on anger management, substance abuse and family counseling and housing placement," Schwarzenegger said.
Critics said the plan, while ambitious, doesn't go nearly far enough.
The $50 million it adds for rehabilitation programs is merely "a drop in the bucket," said Senate Democratic Majority Leader Gloria Romero, one of the Legislature's experts on corrections issues.
Romero and other advocates of prison reform say the bill also should have addressed sentencing reform and required a review of California's convoluted criminal code.
"The bill that was passed was a prop that the governor asked for so he can walk into court and look like he's tough on crime," Romero said. "The bill that the Legislature sent him was a fig leaf so he doesn't walk into court naked."
Schwarzenegger and lawmakers were driven to a compromise last week by threats from three federal judges that they would address prison crowding if California didn't act on its own. Lawmakers said they wanted to avoid the potential for the early release of thousands of inmates.
To relieve crowding in the short term, the administration will ship 8,000 inmates to private prisons in other states, although that plan faces its own legal challenge.