MORAIN: Former critic set to take reins at state Department of Corrections
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.
Beard, a psychologist by training, ran the Pennsylvania prison system, worked in that state’s prison system for 35 years and appeared on behalf of California inmates who contended, righteously, that our state’s prisons were so overcrowded that the level of medical and mental health care constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Beard told the three federal judges that California’s prisons were not safe. With prisoners triple-bunked in every available space, workers couldn’t provide adequate health and mental health care.
That was on Nov. 19, 2008. On Friday, Beard will arrive at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation headquarters in Sacramento for his first day as its new director.
One of Gov. Jerry Brown’s most intriguing appointments, Beard will be Exhibit A as the governor argues that the federal courts should end their direct oversight of the prison system and that litigation that began in 1990 should end.
Pointing out that the prisoners’ expert witness is in charge now, Brown declared last week:
When he testified against California’s prison operations five years ago, he would have turned down the job.
Until his appearance in that San Francisco courtroom, Beard had never testified on behalf of inmates in any prison case. Replying to one of the prisoners’ rights lawyers, he explained why he decided to testify, without charge, about how another state ran its prisons.
The prison construction and population boom had been going on since the 1980s, fed by legislators who voted for ever longer sentences, governors who feared their careers would end if parolees committed heinous crimes, and ever rising sums of tax money.
There were gladiator fights at Corcoran State Prison. Correctional officers shot and killed inmates regularly. And there were lawsuits. Conditions would have worsened more but for the attorneys who brought the case to the highest court in the land.
In 2011, a few months after Brown assumed office, the U.S. Supreme Court held that California needed to slash the inmate population to 110,000 in the 33 adult prisons in order to provide health and mental health care that met constitutional standards.
Today, after a massive criminal justice realignment pushed by Brown, there are 119,192 inmates in those 33 prisons, down from a high of 162,292 in October 2006. It’s among the most significant policy reversals this state has ever seen. But there remain 9,000 prisoners beyond the number permitted under the federal court order.
Brown contends that the state has cut enough and that counties, which must manage an influx of felons formerly sent to prison, need time to digest the change. That is a reasonable stand, in light of protests by local police and an uptick in crime in parts of the state.
He believes California’s prison health care meets constitutional standards, and that other states should emulate this state’s mental health care. Instead of warehousing inmates until their release, the state can implement more programs to combat recidivism.
That’s quite a concept. That’s something that California did well decades ago, but lost along the way.
Attorneys representing prisoners are skeptical that the changes will take hold. No doubt, problems remain. Prisons always will be tough places. Suicides and homicides and gang wars continue.
But as California asks that the judges end their direct oversight, Beard’s arrival should count for something. The number of inmates has fallen by more than 40,000, and that is dramatic. Aspects of the litigation date back 23 years. There must be finality.
Dan Morain is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.