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Originally published February 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 20, 2007 at 11:58 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Grappling with prison reform

New York's Eliot Spitzer, the tough ex-prosecutor turned governor, wants a commission to examine closing some of his state's dozens of prisons...

New York's Eliot Spitzer, the tough ex-prosecutor turned governor, wants a commission to examine closing some of his state's dozens of prisons. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pressing for $11 billion in bonds to add 78,000 beds to California's already burgeoning and overtaxed system.

What's going on here?

Partly, it's what both men inherited. New York's prison population peaked at 71,000 inmates in 1999 but has dropped by 8,000 since. Major explanations: dropping crime levels (especially in New York City) and increased efforts to find alternative treatment for nonviolent offenders.

California's prison population, meanwhile, has continued to surge. It's now at 173,000 inmates, an $8 billion yearly bill. Overcrowding and threats of riots are so serious that a senior prison official last year warned of "an imminent and substantial threat to the public."

One ironic twist: Thirty years ago, California's prison system was hailed as America's best, providing education and psychotherapy for offenders. New York, meanwhile, endured the tumultuous Attica prison riot of 1971 and enacted Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's infamous drug laws — widely copied in other states — that swelled prison populations by setting sentences up to life for possessing or selling even minuscule amounts of narcotics.

So why the switch? In 1977, responding to a crime surge, California Gov. Jerry Brown did away with the "indeterminate" sentencing that gave both judges and parole boards flexibility in deciding when it was safe to release an offender. Rehabilitation and treatment were largely written out of the state prison code; punishment became the sole goal. California's Legislature passed more than 1,000 mandatory prison-sentence measures, topped by the 1994 enactment of the state's famed "three strikes law" decreeing 25-year-to-life terms for most two-time prior offenders.

New York in recent years has been trying reform. Indeed, as some of the more ferociously severe drug-offense penalties were repealed in 2004, then-Gov. George Pataki could proclaim: "The Rockefeller drug laws will be no more."

That's not to say that any reform is easy after decades of "lock-'em-up" politics and a "war" on drugs that has helped drive America's incarceration rates to the highest in the world.

Plus, any governor faces formidable political obstacles trying to pare back America's vast prison-industrial complex. In California, it's the Correctional Peace Officers Association, an astounding 31,000 members strong. Commanding a multimillion-dollar campaign war chest, the union is a major factor in gubernatorial and legislative campaigns. The three-strikes law is its full-employment act.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, whom Schwarzenegger ousted in the 2003 election, appeased the union unabashedly. It has more than 2,000 members earning more than $100,000 a year; its contract-guaranteed pension benefits are superior to those of the state university system.

On entering office, Schwarzenegger seemed intent on an independent course, championing rehabilitation and appointing a reform prison director. But when he began secret dealings with the union, his director quit in protest. Schwarzenegger still talks of measures to help prisoners straighten out their lives (mental-health counseling and life-skills training, for example). But his latest budget cuts a voter-mandated drug-treatment program that studies have shown to be highly cost-effective. And his big emphasis now is on bricks and mortar to confine more prisoners — $11 billion for added state prison, county jail and juvenile beds.

In New York, Spitzer also confronts a politically powerful prison-guard union, and more — local politicians defending a network of upstate prisons built in recent decades to help offset heavy manufacturing job losses. An example: state Sen. Elizabeth Little, whose Adirondacks district includes 12 prisons and prison camps. "There are over 5,000 corrections officers living in my district," she told The New York Times. "In most of these communities, the prisons are the biggest employer."

Left unsaid in Little's frank assessment: a society in which overwhelmingly white upstate New York communities rely economically on massive incarceration of a heavily black and Hispanic prison population.

Will Spitzer, like Schwarzenegger, eventually retreat from his lofty reform goals? On ethics standards and issues like prisons, he's showing a willingness to face down legislators, even fellow Democrats.

It's a bold maneuver, all the more dramatic because Spitzer is specifically including a critical look at today's vast prison establishment and culture — the issue most American politicos fear to even discuss.

Eventually, Spitzer will be obliged to make some compromises on legislation. Yet there's a parallel to Theodore Roosevelt. As William Cunningham, a veteran of two earlier New York administrations, told the Times:

"Roosevelt came in saying he was going to be a reform governor. He immediately got into a fight with Sen. Platt, the head of the Republicans, a powerful political boss in the state. History remembers Teddy Roosevelt. You have to be a knucklehead like me to remember Boss Platt."

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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