Monday, July 31, 2006

Wither Corrections Reform in California?

There is an excellent article in the July 26 issue of the Ventura County Reporter about how the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the state’s prison guards’ union, is frustrating reform efforts to stem the overincarceration problem in California.

The Los Angeles Times noted in June, “With 31,000 members, the union is one of the most powerful players in California politics, having contributed millions to candidates and initiative fights in recent years.” The Times further reported on the findings of a special master appointed by a federal judge as part of the state’s pending prison overcrowding litigation:
After launching “one of the most productive periods of prison reform” in California history, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has retreated from the cause and given the guards union a “disturbing” level of clout over prison policy and operations, a federal court investigator charged Wednesday.

Special Master John Hagar accused Schwarzenegger of backpedaling and warned that California was returning to an era when union leaders were allowed to “overrule the most critical decisions” of prison administrators.

To be sure, California has also been a leader on criminal justice reform, most notably through an initaitive passed by voters in 2001 that substituted treatment for prison for minor nonviolent drug offenders, a program UCLA researchers say has saved the state's taxpayers $800 million dollars. Governor Schwarzenneger has also proposed a laudable plan for moving some nonviolent women offenders from prisons to community corrections centers in major urban areas, which would promote their community reintegration.

However, in this election year, Schwarzenneger is also proposing building more prisons to satiate the CCPOA and his planned community centers for women, although privately operated, would have their costs driven up by the concession to the CCPOA to employ only union members.

All of this serves as a reminder that a vast, government-run prison system creates vested interests, just like any other enormous government program, that can obstruct needed reforms, even when advocated by a well-intentioned leader who brings celebrity status and plenty of political muscle to the job.

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