Lawmakers cut prisons budget plan
Program failures, waste lead Senate panel to reject $100 million of 6.5 billion request
- James Sterngold, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005
SACRAMENTO -A state Senate subcommittee slashed next year's budget request for
California's Department of Corrections on Thursday after grilling
prison officials over a humiliating array of program failures and wasted money.
Senators frequently question state officials on their budgets, but
rarely are the lawmakers as harsh as they were Thursday. They
delivered one rebuke after another for a string of failures throughout
the state's badly overtaxed prison system, from information technology
to the training of guards and medical care.
Roderick Hickman, secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, admitted that not only had a critical program intended to keep parole
violators out of prison failed, officials had never even managed to put
it in place before he abandoned the effort. A new program will not be
ready until January, he said.
"We intended to implement, but we didn't succeed," said Hickman. "We
just never got off the ground as we intended."
The program was critical because it was supposed to save money by
keeping parole violators out of prisons, which are already bulging at almost double their capacity.
Another official said that the Corrections Department had spent years
installing a fiber-optic system so that prison officials would be able
to use the most up-to-date computer communications systems, but that
they never followed up to install the means of using the expensive
"What I'm saying is our information highway is broken" despite large
expenditures, said Jeff Baldo, a deputy secretary for information
At one point the budget subcommittee's chair, Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, demanded information on the money spent on an overdue
computerized system for tracking pharmaceutical information in the
prisons, and a corrections official asked if she could get back to her
"It was on the agenda for today," Romero snapped. "I would have
expected you to be ready today."
At another point, when an official was providing vague information on
how much the state had wasted on the failed parole program, Sen. Mike
Machado, D- Linden (San Joaquin County), snarled, "Don't B.S. me."
With their frustration building, the senators agreed to cut completely
or scale back numerous budget items for a total of nearly $100
million, out of the total corrections' budget request of $6.5 billion.
The state Senate was not alone in its frustration. On Wednesday, an
Assembly subcommittee gutted the entire budgets of two boards within
the Department of Corrections, cutting a total of $30.6 million. The
subcommittee's chairman, Rudy Bermÿdez, D-Norwalk (Los Angeles County),
said at the Assembly hearing that the two boards were being eliminated
until they could justify their existence.
The cuts agreed on by the Senate subcommittee on Thursday included
everything from $2.6 million that was to be used to pay guards for
supervising inmate laborers, to a $480,000 reduction in the budget for
responding to discovery requests from civil suits. Some of the funds
may be restored when corrections officials provide the financial data
the senators requested.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has requested $6.5 billion for the
Corrections Department for the next fiscal year, up from $6.26 billion
in the current year, and a sharp jump from $5.1 billion in the
2001-2002 fiscal year.
The system, the largest in the nation, holds nearly 165,000 inmates,
nearly double what it was designed for, a result of tougher sentencing
laws over the past several decades.
Schwarzenegger has promised a major reform effort to shore up a prison
system that all agree is riddled with failures. As costs are soaring,
the recidivism rate is among the highest in the country and
rehabilitation programs have been gutted.
The Senate approved legislation Thursday on a plan that would change
the name of the system to the Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation and gives Hickman much broader authority to run the state's 32 far-flung prisons.
But the name change will not help some of the deep-seated failures. The prison health care system performs so poorly that experts appointed by
a federal court found prison clinics were actually killing some
inmates through malfeasance. A federal district court judge has said
he is contemplating appointing a receiver to seize control of the
corrections health care program.
In fact, two weeks ago, G. Kevin Carruth, the agency's undersecretary,
said at a Senate hearing that his department was simply not capable of providing adequate medical care to inmates and that the state was
seeking to bring in outside experts to manage the vast system.
But on Thursday the budget subcommittee rejected the department's
request for $850,000 to pay a consultant to prepare the contracts for
those outside health care experts.
"I do not have confidence that (the Corrections Department) has the
ability to write the contracts," said Romero.
Chronicle staff writer Mark Martin contributed to this report.E-mail
James Sterngold at email@example.com .