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Deukmejian had it right - rehab, not cells

 It might surprise many that the best ideas to fix the California prison crisis were produced over a decade ago by law-and-order Republican George Deukmejian.

This week, the Legislature and the governor attempted to reconcile two very different policy proposals to avert the imminent federal court order to release thousands of state inmates. State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, offered an alternative that spends much less taxpayer money, emphasizes mental health treatment and expanding rehabilitative services at the state and county levels, much like the proposal advocated by Deukmejian in 2004.

As a member of the Legislature, as state attorney general, and as governor, Deukmejian defended capital punishment, championed mandatory prison terms for a wide range of crimes and increased the number of prison beds. In 2004, however, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped Deukmejian to lead an independent review panel to conduct a comprehensive review of the growing emergency of overcrowding in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The panel counseled against further bed expansion in California prisons and advocated a primary focus on population management.

Deukmejian articulated the need for fundamental sentencing reform, including creating a state sentencing commission as used in 21 other states and the federal government. The panel called for significant expansion of good-time credits so that inmates could earn accelerated release for participating in prison rehabilitation programs and avoiding disciplinary problems. The panel called for the elimination of legal barriers to former inmates succeeding as law-abiding members of their communities.

This remarkable report advocated for major investments in rehabilitation programs, especially substance abuse treatment, literacy programs and expanded vocational opportunities behind prison walls. Deukmejian called for a dramatic reorganization of the department of corrections' parole operations that would focus on planning for a successful return to community living and reducing the very high recidivism rates of former inmates.

Schwarzenegger politely accepted the panel report and tossed it on the dusty and overflowing shelf of prison reform proposals that were forgotten over the past quarter century. This was an enormous lost opportunity to forge a bipartisan political consensus on behalf of needed changes to corrections policy and California's contradictory and irrational sentencing laws.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, have proposed leasing prison cells from private prison companies or some counties to expand the number of beds. These new prisons would be manned by members of the correctional officers union. It is a short-term fix that will cost more than $1 billion over the next three years. Republicans, most Assembly Democrats and virtually all the criminal justice agencies have sided with the governor.

It may come down to who is positioning for upcoming and future statewide elections. The traditionally liberal Assembly Democrats don't want to appear to be soft on crime or support proposals that result in the early release of inmates. Local criminal justice agencies want more money from the taxpayers. Some in the state department of corrections, the Legislature and the governor's office actually may have drunk the Kool-Aid that our prisons only hold people too dangerous to release - despite powerful evidence that there are still many low-risk offenders in California's prisons.

Deukmejian had it right. California needs fundamental sentencing reform and to shorten prison stays for carefully selected non-dangerous convicts. Probation and county parole agencies need to implement proven programs to manage lower risk offenders in the community. Providing adequate mental health, literacy and substance programs in our state prisons must top our agenda.

The Steinberg approach has the endorsement of progressive reform groups and leading members from the religious community. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón supports it.

It is unclear, however, whether the federal court will be persuaded that this proposal to alleviate prison overcrowding is sufficient to meet constitutional muster and will instead proceed with its imperative that the state start releasing the lowest risk inmates in early 2014. However, a careful reading of the Deukmejian panel proposal clearly would support the plans of Sens. Steinberg, Loni Hancock and Mark Leno, among others. The time for wasting public funds for illusionary fixes to our prisons has run out.