Thursday, May 15, 2008

**Special Op-ed By Secretary James E. Tilton**

James E. Tilton: Investing in prison reform pays in safety Published May 15, 2008 (Sacramento Bee)


One year ago this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the most comprehensive and bipartisan prison reform legislation that California has ever seen. The law's passage was in response to a combination of crises that had the state's prison system on the verge of collapse. While there is still much hard work to be done, California is finally on the right track toward real prison reform.

Before the passage of Assembly Bill 900, the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Act of 2007, the state had no concrete plan to address the myriad serious issues facing our prison system. Overcrowding was near record highs, and California was very close to running out of beds for new inmates. Federal judges were contemplating imposing a population cap to force the release of inmates who had not served their full sentences.

Fortunately the governor, working with legislators from both parties, law enforcement and community leaders, crafted a plan to address these issues head-on. The reform measure authorized transferring up to 8,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities, funded up to 53,000 beds in state prisons and local jails to reduce overcrowding, and set benchmarks to ensure that all inmates sent to prison are given access to rehabilitation programs.

While these reforms will not solve all of California's prison problems overnight, they provide for long-term solutions. However, in just one year since the passage of these reforms, significant progress is being made.

To date, more than 4,000 inmates have been transferred to out of state facilities, enough to fill an entire prison. This has allowed for more than a dozen gymnasiums used to house prisoners to be deactivated, so that they can be reused for recreation and rehabilitation programs. The state is on track to transfer 8,000 inmates out of state by early next year, providing much-needed breathing room in California prisons.

Construction plans are also moving forward. New beds are being built at existing prisons, at secure community reentry facilities and in local jails across the state. These beds will relieve the strain on the system and create accompanying rehabilitation space. More than 6,000 infill beds at state prisons are currently moving through the approval process, 19 counties have submitted proposals for nearly 7,000 reentry beds to help transition inmates in their final 12 months of incarceration, and 24 counties have applied for funds to relieve jail overcrowding.

The state also understands that real prison reform takes more than just inmate transfers and new construction; it takes a seismic shift in focus toward providing inmates with programs that will help them be successful upon release. California's prison system has turned into a virtual revolving door for repeat offenders. Effective rehabilitation programs are being put in place to help end this vicious cycle.

California is implementing a project to provide pathways to rehabilitation for inmates designed to reduce recidivism rates. The state is also looking at parole and other reforms to better assess the risks and needs of ex-offenders and to tailor evidence-based programs to improve their chances of becoming law-abiding citizens.

California is taking progressive steps to end drug addiction, especially among its parolee population, which is also having a positive impact in reducing recidivism. The number of parolees diverted into community drug treatment beds is up 42 percent in the past year alone. This positive change has resulted in fewer parolees reoffending and decreased population in correctional institutions.

For true reform to be successful, partnerships with local communities must continue to be built. Their involvement and shared dedication is critical throughout the process for siting reentry facilities, and local communities should remain involved as citizens are returned to their homes.

It is a monumental task to overhaul such a massive system, with 67,000 employees, more than 170,000 inmates and more than 120,000 parolees. Fortunately, the reform movement is heading in the right direction and continuing to gain momentum.

I am retiring this week, after two years of leading the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation through a period of significant change. While I know that there are more challenges ahead, I have full confidence in the men and women who are working toward achieving the goals set out by the governor and legislators in their roadmap to reform.

By investing in reform and inmate rehabilitation, we are investing in the safety and the future of all Californians.

(Sacramento Bee - story link: http://www.sacbee.com/110/story/939597.html)

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