Prison acrimony looks inescapable

February 25, 2008

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to release tens of thousands of prisoners before they’ve served their full sentences to save money. The Legislature isn’t inclined to hand him the cell keys.

The governor advocates turning felons loose on the street without parole supervision. The Legislature is thinking they should be kept on a leash.

Schwarzenegger has proposed giving prison guards a 5% pay hike. Not now, say legislators — not while he’s freezing benefits for welfare moms and for the impoverished aged, blind and disabled. Not when he’s cutting back on doctor fees for treating the poor and whacking schools.

There are major policy disputes between the Schwarzenegger administration, the prison guards union and lawmakers of both parties.

But they’re a Sunday picnic compared to the poisonous atmosphere that has evolved among the prison powers at the Capitol. The pollutants include vengeance, disrespect and mistrust. It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen on a single issue — a program that is the state’s fourth largest and gobbles up roughly $10 billion annually.

Where to begin in recapping?

Start before Schwarzenegger ever got to Sacramento, say the guards. Go back to when the “action hero” was still making films. The aspiring politician charmed the union president, Mike Jimenez, on a movie set and over brandy and cigars. If Schwarzenegger ever became governor, he wouldn’t make a change in prisons without first conferring with Jimenez. At least that’s what the union boss thought the actor said.

Of course, no future governor should promise that. And whether the naive wannabe did or not, that wasn’t how he operated once elected. And Jimenez felt betrayed.

Next thing we heard, Schwarzenegger was taking a gratuitous swipe at the guards in his 2005 State of the State speech. True, some guards had become embroiled in scandal by apparently mistreating prisoners. But the union — the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. — didn’t take kindly to this gubernatorial declaration: “I want to put the corrupt people in our prisons on the same side of the bars.”

Then Schwarzenegger angered the guards and every other public employees union by promoting an unsuccessful ballot initiative that would have curtailed their ability to spend members’ dues on politics.

Relations between the governor and the guards had become extremely sour by the time the union’s generous contract expired in 2006. And the mood soon got worse.

“I acted out” at the bargaining table, Jimenez admits. “I yelled and swore. I’m tired of being lied to. Tired of being lied about. Tired of union members being blamed for every ill of the Department of Corrections.”

When negotiations collapsed last summer, the powerful union tried an end-run around Schwarzenegger in the Legislature. It pushed a bill on the final night of the session that contained a salary hike without administration-sought reforms that would have reduced union control over staffing. The Legislature balked and the union retaliated.

Although the union initially endorsed Proposition 93, the Democratic-sponsored measure to loosen term limits, the CCPOA not only rescinded that support, it donated $2 million to the opposition camp. The measure failed on Feb. 5 — the union got its payback — but it was a bonehead move, given that the union will forever need legislative favors.

Nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill recently described the relationship between Schwarzenegger and the union as “completely dysfunctional.” And relations aren’t any better between the union and the Legislature.

Hill recommended that lawmakers reject the 5%, $260-million wage hike Schwarzenegger had proposed. She concluded that the guards’ benefits and base pay — roughly $45,000 to $73,000 — already were high enough to attract recruits.

There isn’t much legislative sympathy for the union. And the Capitol’s overflowing red ink is a legitimate rationale for denying the pay boost.

“This is not the appropriate time for raises or COLAs [cost of living adjustments] anywhere in state government,” says Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden), chairman of a budget subcommittee that doles out money for prisons. “We’re not going to cut healthcare and COLAs for the needy, then turn around and give 5% raises to state employees.”

Relations also are cruddy between Schwarzenegger and the Legislature, especially Republicans. For that reason alone, it’s unlikely that the governor’s proposals to free nonviolent prisoners 20 months early and release them on unsupervised parole will fly. Republicans oppose the ideas, so Democrats aren’t going to stick their necks out and risk being labeled — again — soft on crime.

Schwarzenegger says his proposals would save the state $379 million during the next fiscal year by eliminating 5,854 jobs. By 2009, there’d be 63,000 fewer inmates and parolees, representing a 20% reduction, according to the legislative analyst. The prisons now are crammed with 173,000 inmates in spaces built for 100,000.

Meanwhile, A $7.9-billion prison expansion program is poking along, with new cell beds expected to cost — unbelievably — $222,000 each.

“We don’t even spend $10,000 on a school child,” complains Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), a longtime prison reformer.

The answer isn’t early release, Republicans contend, especially without attempted rehabilitation.

“We don’t trust the Department of Corrections as far as we can throw them,” says Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), a former cop and prosecutor who plans ultimately to run for Orange County district attorney.

Neither does he trust the governor.

“This is the governor who once said, ‘There’ll be absolutely no early release on my watch,’ ” asserts Spitzer, who’s especially upset because the administration hasn’t followed through with promised rehab programs.

Schwarzenegger advisors reply that the governor is doing the best he can within budget limitations. If anybody has a better idea — one that’s fiscally prudent — offer it.

But that would require serious good-faith negotiations. And the atmosphere is too acrid.

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