CA Prison System Presents Major Reform Opportunity

Schwarzenegger needs to battle powerful prison guards

While a fall from a motorcycle resulted in stitches on his lip, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failure to pass significant government reforms last November bruised the governor far deeper.

Now as Schwarzenegger heals, he’s seeking to regain the momentum he had – and lost – following the recall election. But the healing process has brought some troubling shifts in policy direction.

Upon entering office Gov. Schwarzenegger promised to “blow up the boxes” of bureaucracy and give Californians a government that was more responsive, transparent and focused on achieving results. Stymied at just about every turn, the governor’s latest tune sounds like a retreat.

Instead of talking about making public employee unions accountable to taxpayers, ongoing budget problems, and restraining the size and growth of government, Schwarzenegger called for an “ambitious” legislative agenda with $70 billion in borrowing.

All is not lost though. The governor does have a chance to show that he is dedicated to bringing about change and reforming government. Early in his administration he said “it is a priority of my administration to reform the California prison system.” Given the current condition and looming crisis within the California Department of Corrections (CDC) the time for action is now.

Put simply, CDC is facing a shortage of nearly 4,000 guards. A long standing problem highlighted by numerous auditor reports, which noted that CDC “intentionally keeps 1,000 positions vacant and uses the funds saved to make up for shortfalls in the budget.” The problem will only get worse over time. A new retirement benefit, signed as part of a lucrative contract with then Gov. Gray Davis, enables more guards to retire early – with more benefits. A double hit on the cash strapped department.

CDC’s problems run deep.

In 2004, an independent reform panel led by former Gov. George Deukmejian made over 300 recommendations to improve the prison system. Its time to get some of them enacted. Perhaps, one of the most important reforms would be bringing the powers of competition to the CDC. More than two-thirds of the states and the federal government employ some form of private corrections—or at least make their in-house unit compete with the private sector.

The results speak for themselves. Cost savings of at least 10-15 percent and no departure in quality, security, or inmate safety. In fact, many studies show improvements in those areas when competition is introduced.

This is huge opportunity for the governor to give his reform minded friends something to hold onto. He can’t afford to let this get away from him. It’s too big and too important. Remember the California Performance Review?

It proposed a top-to-bottom reorganization of government, eliminating more than 1,100 political appointees, and recommended more than 1,400 policy reforms to improve and streamline how government operates resulting in more than $34 billion in savings.

We know where the problems are, unfortunately for the governor, and the citizens of California special interests have fought for, shielded and protected the status quo. Schwarzenegger hasn’t even been able to divest unused, unneeded or unwanted assets including golf courses, stadiums, beach houses and prime commercial real estate. Leaving billions off the table that could go toward building new roads, strengthening levees, and improving our higher education facilities.

CDC has to be different. The union representing the prison guards has grown too powerful, and threatens the safety and future of California. Someone needs to take them head on. Schwarzenegger has the personality and persona large enough to do it.

Here’s hoping that the stitches heal and with them a new energized governor emerges. Ready to take on the tough road ahead – reforming the CDC.

Geoffrey F. Segal is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation.