Prison reform: Governor’s plan will safeguard public

The comprehensive prison reform package signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in May is a monumental shift in California’s prison policies. In addition to reducing severe overcrowding by increasing capacity inside of existing prisons, AB 900 allows the state to focus on rehabilitation programs that will address the root problems driving recidivism.

These reforms come as federal judges consider the early release of upwards of 35,000 felons from state prison. The Governor and I are taking every step to prevent the release of inmates who have not served their time. Law enforcement and elected officials from across California, understanding the very real threat that early release poses to public safety, are also intervening in the case on behalf of their constituents. If we don’t act, we face grave public safety dangers. Even as the state battles in court against an early release order or a population cap, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is rapidly implementing short and long-term reforms to address overcrowding and reduce recidivism.

California has already transferred nearly 1,000 inmates to out of state facilities, primarily moving inmates with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement holds who will be deported once they complete their sentence. We are on track to transfer upwards of 400 inmates per month over the next two years, and approximately 8,000 by 2009. Inmate transfers to-date have allowed over 600 “bad beds” in places like gymnasiums, dayrooms, and classrooms to be taken down so that rehabilitation programs can resume.

Secure community re-entry facilities are the centerpiece of Governor Schwarzenegger’s reforms. For the past several months, corrections officials have met with local law enforcement and elected officials across the state to discuss these facilities, which will provide intensive rehabilitation services to inmates in the 6-12 months before they’re released. This is a critical window, because soon-to-be released inmates are the most receptive to rehabilitation. These facilities will let the state transition inmates back to their communities with the tools to lead productive, law-abiding lives. This new model will result in 16,000 beds that will provide rehabilitation in those critical final months of inmates’ sentences.

Rehabilitation is the key to reducing California’s approximately 70 percent recidivism rate. That’s why each of the 16,000 new beds built at existing state institutions and 13,000 local jail beds authorized by AB 900 will be built with space for rehabilitation programs. Last year the state assembled a panel of national experts to study our prison system. Now we’re in the process of implementing their recommendations by adopting new, evidence-based practices.

These are road-tested policy changes that have helped to reduce crime and victimization in dozens of other states. Parole reform is one of the most important policies we’re implementing. Last week the state gave parole officers a new, improved tool to evaluate parolees based on risk to re-offend. As a result, non-serious, non-violent and non-sex offenders will now have the opportunity to earn discharge from parole. Research shows that this incentive increases the likelihood that parolees will become law-abiding citizens and decreases the likelihood that they’ll commit more crimes.

As a result of this common sense change, parole agents can focus their resources on monitoring offenders who pose a serious threat to public safety, and on implementing Jessica’s Law to better track sex offenders. Protecting public safety and California communities is prison reform’s bottom line goal. With the state’s population growing, we must ensure we have the capacity to incarcerate criminals who are a danger to society. Pairing this with rehabilitation is crucial, as 60,000 currently incarcerated inmates will be on the streets within the next three years.

The Governor’s prison reform package provides short-term solutions to overcrowding, while at the same time implementing a vision for the future of our state’s corrections and criminal justice system. When given time to work, these comprehensive reforms will produce real results that will improve public safety.

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