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The New York Times, Nov 14, 2003 pA24 col 01 (20 col in)

Study Calls California Parole System a $1 Billion Failure. (National Desk) Fox Butterfield.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 The New York Times Company

At a time when California faces a record budget deficit, the state is wasting $1 billion a year on a failed system of sending large numbers of recently released inmates back to prison for minor parole violations, according to a study released Thursday by a state watchdog agency.

The study, by the Little Hoover Commission, found that 67 percent of those sent to prison in California were parolees being returned for violating a condition of their release, almost double the national average of 35 percent. Under state law, many of these so-called technical violations, like missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing a drug test, were not considered criminal acts, the report said.

''The bottom line: California's correctional system costs more than it should,'' the report concluded.

California spends $900 million a year incarcerating parole violators and $465 million on supervising parolees, it said. The bulk of the supervision costs are ''for parole agents who spend much of their time filling out paperwork to send parolees back to prison.''

That is almost $1.4 billion spent on parole. Because two-thirds of new inmates are being returned for parole violations, ''this means that California's parole system is a billion-dollar failure,'' said Nancy Lyons, the deputy executive director of the commission.

The commission is an independent, bipartisan agency appointed by the governor and the Legislature.

The money could be spent better on drug treatment, job training and education for inmates before release, the report said, greatly reducing the number of people returned to prison. Although three-quarters of the 160,000 inmates have drug or alcohol problems, only 6 percent get treatment. Only one-third take part in job or education programs.

In the past year, 25 states have passed legislation reversing some of the tough sentencing laws of the 1980's and 1990's to reduce the influx of prisoners and close budget gaps. Other states have also closed prisons, laid off guards or released inmates early as emergency measures.

But California, with the largest and most expensive prison system, is one of the few states that has not acted to reduce corrections costs.

A primary reason, experts say, is that the prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, is the most powerful union in the state and contributes the largest amount of any political action committee to politicians in the state. The union also represents parole officers, and many of them began their careers as prison guards. Experts say the guards and parole officers have a financial incentive to keep the number of inmates high, helping preserve their jobs and ensure high salaries.

''Whether its power is real or imagined, the corrections officers' union is considered to be the major stumbling block to reform in California,'' said Jeremy Travis, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington.

The guards' union did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Ms. Lyons said that with the huge deficit and the election of a new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has pledged to close the budget gap without raising taxes, there might be an opportunity for reform.

The report found that California was not doing as good a job preparing its inmates for release as it once did. In 1980, only about one of four parolees ended up back in prison, compared with the two of three being sent back now. In 1980, 2,995 parole violators were sent back to prison in California. In 2000, 89,363 were returned.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said that parole officers in the state ''didn't have options.'' When an ex-convict violated parole, the officer could only revoke the parole and send the parolee back to prison or do nothing, Ms. Thornton said.

Armed with new money in the 2004 budget, the department is planning a system with more education and drug treatment for inmates about to be released, she said. The new program, similar to recommendations in the report, is to begin in January.

The report also found that the parole revocation process, conducted in hearings behind closed doors by parole officers and the Department of Corrections, also obscured the fact that some parolees were sent back to prison for committing serious crimes. In 2000, 78 parolees were returned to prison for homicides, 524 for robberies and 384 for rapes, but they were not tried in court and served only four to nine months in prison.

Ms. Thornton said the department had no information that parole violators sent back to prison for murder, robbery or rape ''had actually committed these crimes.''

''If they were never tried,'' she said, ''I don't know if they committed these crimes. This is America after all. You aren't guilty until tried and convicted.''

Michael P. Jacobson, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former commissioner of corrections for New York City, said: ''This is insane. The whole California system is begging for reform.''