A $7.4 billion program to expand California’s already vast prison system, proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved by the Legislature last month, is drawing fire from advocates of prison reform and is viewed skeptically even by some legislative leaders.

The measure, AB 900, will add some 53,000 new prison and jail beds, including 16,000 new beds for existing prisons and 16,000 beds for new “re-entry” facilities in urban areas. Also included are 8,000 new medical beds and aid to counties for 13,000 new jail beds.

Currently, the state’s 33 prisons house 172,000 inmates in facilities meant to hold 100,000. As a result, many inmates are currently sleeping in gyms and classrooms.

Adding urgency to the issue, three federal judges will hold hearings this month on whether to place a population cap on the overcrowded system. Schwarzenegger and Republican legislators used the possibility of early releases to press AB 900’s passage.

The new construction will be funded through “revenue lease bonds” that don’t require voter approval, and are usually more expensive to finance than voter-approved bonds. It is estimated the bonds could ultimately cost up to $15 billion. Critics also note that operating costs, which are unknown, are not included in AB 900.

Inmate rights activists say a real program to relieve prison overcrowding would start with fundamental reform of sentencing and parole procedures. It would also include providing good jobs in poor working-class communities and economic and social support for former inmates.

“No matter what [the governor and Legislature] do that

doesn’t lead to real sentencing reform will ultimately mean we are obligated to continue to expand the system,” inmate rights activist Dorsey Nunn said in a telephone interview. Nunn, co-founder of San Francisco-based All of Us or None, urged releasing elderly and terminally ill prisoners, providing full funding for voter-approved Prop. 36 to treat drug offenders instead of jailing them, “creating a parole board that has the authority to actually parole,” and ending discrimination against ex-offenders.

“They define 53,000 beds, but they haven’t defined what rehabilitation looks like and what is the plan,” he added.

Both Nunn and Debbie Reyes of the California Prison Moratorium Project sharply criticized the state’s claim that building prisons in remote areas provides jobs and improves infrastructure in poor rural communities.

Reyes, based in Fresno, said that although prisons have proliferated in the Central Valley in the last 20 years, a 2005 congressional report cited the area’s communities as some of the most impoverished in the nation.

“When are we going to stop [building prisons] and start answering the real question: What are we going to do with a community that’s in poverty, or that’s in a health crisis?” Reyes asked. “Those are the questions we need to start answering, because now, we’re creating a revolving door.”

Sentencing reform was also high on her list. Pointing out that during the two decades from 1986 to 2006, the Legislature created “over 1,000 new felonies” and the prison population increased 450 percent, Reyes said, “We’re not willing to invest in our communities, especially communities of color. We need to look at how many people of color are locked up in those prisons and for what reasons. Some of these felonies perhaps don’t need to be felonies. Maybe some parole violations are very petty.”

Reyes stressed making sure inmates being released have homes, decent jobs and support services.

Even some legislative leaders expressed concern about the expansion. “It’s clearly not a statement of our priorities,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “This is a disservice to our economy.”

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata called the measure “a compromise among bad alternatives.”

Earlier this spring, Sen. Perata and Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who heads the Senate Committee on Public Safety, highlighted the importance of their bill, SB 110, which would establish an independent, nonpartisan state sentencing commission whose recommendations would take effect unless rejected by the Legislature.

Last month Romero called the governor’s proposal to eliminate the commission’s funding “backtracking.” Without “significant sentencing reform,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle, “we will just keep on filling up the prison beds we have expanded.”

mbechtel @pww.org