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Tilton confirmed as prisons chief, but system

The Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, voted Wednesday to confirm prisons chief James Tilton. But the Democratic Senate leader also sent a sharp letter to the governor, expressing concern about the continued problems in the state's prison system.

"I believe your CDCR appointees are generally competent and responsible, but the structure in which they work is seriously flawed," Perata wrote.

Perata outlined eight areas of particular concern, from the juvenile justice divisions to unfilled vacancies to the Board of Parole Hearings.

"Protecting the public is one of the chief responsibilities of government, and if California cannot effectively manage its prisons, it is endangering the safety of every one of its residents," Perata wrote in the letter.

The full letter is posted below:

July 11, 2007

Honorable Arnold Schwarzenegger

Governor of California

State Capitol Building

Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmations

Dear Governor Schwarzenegger:

Since January 1, 2007 the Senate has approved 27 of your appointments to positions in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Today, the Senate Rules Committee heard its last four CDCR appointees for 2007 and voted to support James Tilton as Secretary of the Department and Kingston "Bud" Prunty as its Undersecretary. I believe your CDCR appointees are generally competent and responsible, but the structure in which they work is seriously flawed.

This unusually high number of confirmations is the result of the Governor's reorganization of CDCR, Chapter 10, Statutes of 2005, which went into effect in July 2005. At your request, the structure of the department changed fundamentally. These changes seem to have only exacerbated many of the department's problems as evidenced by the testimony before the Rules Committee.

The department's already high workload is now even greater with the recent passage of your comprehensive prison package, AB 900, which is a mix of bonds for constructing prison beds and funding for new prison programs.

You are to be commended for moving in a direction that promotes public safety through rehabilitation. However, after months of confirmations hearings, the existing structure remains confusing at best. If the public is to support your efforts toward rehabilitation, we need more clarity from you about how we will get there. I am particularly concerned about the following areas:

Lines of Communication and Decision-Making Authority

The structure of the department prohibits effective lines of communication and confuses clear lines of decision-making authority. Currently, the organizational chart includes a Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Programs and a Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Operations. Even after exhaustive conversations in both the Rules and Budget Committees, it is unclear how these two positions interact. For example, who is responsible for replicating successful programs from one prison to another, deciding which inmates should participate in specific programs and balancing custody demands with programs?

It is unclear exactly who is in charge of in-prison programs: the warden, the school principal at that prison, or someone else. If the individual responsible for programs and the warden disagree, who makes the ultimate decision?

I understand that you are considering creating a third Undersecretary position to be in charge of Adult Programs. Will this help clarify lines of decision-making authority or create more silos?

These are basic questions that must be clarified if the department is to ever actually incorporate rehabilitation into its mission and not just its name.

AB 900 Implementation

In April, the Legislature passed AB 900. As you know, the law provides bonds for the construction of 53,000 state, local, medical, and re-entry beds. The construction will occur in two phases with the second phase only beginning after certain benchmarks are met. The law is very clear: in order to receive any of the phase 2 funding the department must meet all 13 benchmarks.

16,000 of the new beds are "in-fill" beds at existing facilities. Their purpose is to replace the "bad beds" in gymnasiums, dayrooms and classrooms. In order to enhance the safety of staff and inmates, it is imperative that these beds are constructed expeditiously. Also, there must be thoughtful consideration as to the location of these new beds. New beds should not exacerbate existing wastewater problems nor occur at locations with significant vacancy rates.

Local governments also play a major role in AB 900's implementation. In order to receive bond money to build local jails, they will apply for grants from the Corrections Standard Authority. One of the factors that CSA will consider when awarding these grants is the help that the locals provide in siting the re-entry facilities. CSA will also give preference to counties that assist the state in siting mental health facilities and that provide innovative substance abuse and mental health programs.

Yet, when CSA testified before Budget Subcommittee 4, there seemed to be some confusion about this, which gives me great concern. And, in an April 12 hearing in Senate Budget Subcommittee 4, CDCR disclosed that local governments will have authority to select who will be housed at the reentry facilities. While this may help in encouraging these projects in local communities, it seems to abrogate decisions about the level of custody and programming. This lack of clarity will likely result in a barrier to getting these facilities up and running.

Strike Teams

Before the passage of AB 900, it was suggested that you consider a "strike force" of individuals from other departments, retired annuitants, and professionals outside of government to assist CDCR in getting out of its crisis and getting work done. The suggestion was not to replace or supplant employees of the department.

Instead, you issued a press release on May 11 creating two "Strike Teams," one for facilities and one for rehabilitation. It is unclear if these new strike teams are permanent or time limited and how they are expected to interact with existing CDCR employees who are charged with carrying out these very tasks. The press release read that the program strike team would "fundamentally reform California's prison rehabilitation programs." If this is the case, what is the role of the Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Programs? Furthermore, just last week a CDCR expert panel released the study: A Roadmap for Effective Programming in California. How does this panel's work fit into the newly appointed Strike Team?

Division of Juvenile Justice

The juvenile population under CDCR is much smaller than the adult side, but equally as important. I was concerned when the reorganization occurred that DJJ issues would be ignored and this appears to have happened. Two key positions have never been appointed and filled with a permanent employee since the 2005 corrections re-organization: the DJJ chief of programs and the DJJ chief of parole.

The Farrell lawsuit required the department to fix almost every aspect of DJJ. Your administration's commitment to these plans remains unclear as many court ordered deadlines are routinely missed. Some are over a year delayed.

Finally, several years ago, the department was sued over violating the due process rights of adult parolees. A few weeks ago, the Executive Director of the Board of Parole Hearings described how the Valdivia lawsuit fixed many of those issues. But, those same violations still occur on the juvenile side. Not surprisingly, there is now a lawsuit.

If we do not want DJJ to play the role of preparing youth for a lifetime of CDCR, more attention must be paid to this division.

Staff Vacancies

There are approximately 4,000 vacancies for correctional officers, teachers and medical and mental health providers. Given the current vacancies, it is hard to believe the department can maintain existing programs much less operate expanded population and program without an aggressive recruitment and training plan. A plan for recruitment and retention of department employees must be implemented.

I remind you that addressing some of these vacancies is a benchmark for the second phase of construction in AB 900. If a significant number of these positions are not filled, the department will not receive funding for the second phase of construction.

Parole and Recidivism Reduction

The recidivism rates in California are dismal. This is due at least in part to the lack of programming in prisons and lack of opportunities for individuals who are released from California prisons. The legislature has given you tools in AB 900 to address some of these issues. I hope that you will, but again, it is not clear how this dramatic improvement will occur.

The problem is further exacerbated by the lack of intermediate sanctions, especially for individuals whose offenses are drug, alcohol or mental health related. We simply must do a better job of keeping people from returning to prison, where they add to overcrowding and often do not get the help they need.

Board of Parole Hearings

The Board of Parole Hearings also has significant troubles. One third of lifer hearings are still routinely postponed. This creates significant extra costs and seriously inconveniences victims, family members and attorneys. A reason regularly cited for postponements is that the files are not up to date. I do not understand why the Board of Parole Hearings cannot review a file prior to the day of the hearing in order to postpone a hearing if necessary.

The psychological evaluation issue remains unanswered. Without exception, I have asked every appointee associated with the Board of Parole "how old is too old" for a psychological evaluation. I've yet to receive a clear answer, and the recent responses are at odds with what the experts assisting you have recommended.

The potential parole of an individual with a life term has become highly politicized. Certain organizations track and publish the number of parole dates individual board members grant. This places an enormous amount of pressure on board members, leaving concern for their freedom to reach an independent decision.

Labor Contract

Your administration and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association have been negotiating a new contract for over a year. In May, the administration asked the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to order you into mediation. PERB responded by declaring an initial impasse and directing the parties to mediation. I understand that those discussions are currently underway.

Without labor peace, all of the work we do to improve the success rates in the department will be for naught. I encourage you to engage in this process in earnest and to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.

We all have a vested interest in this department. Parolees come back to our districts and the families of inmates live there. The success or failure of this department directly impacts the quality of life for our constituents.

Homicide rates in my own district are soaring. One theory is that the culture of prisons is being exported onto the streets. The violence, gangs and lack of educational and vocational programming in prisons translate into murder, fear and poverty at home.

Without a doubt, the task of overhauling California's prison system, alleviating inmate overcrowding and improving rehabilitation efforts is a tremendous challenge. As I have outlined in this letter, there are still huge fundamental problems the administration must tackle if the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is to live up to its name and mission.

Protecting the public is one of the chief responsibilities of government, and if California cannot effectively manage its prisons, it is endangering the safety of every one of its residents. I trust you understand the gravity of the situation and will move quickly to address these issues.


Don Perata