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Redeem the redeemable, restrain the dangerous -- and know the difference

I understand that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided to mimic the liberal Democrats and abandon the supposed "punishment model" of the California Department of Corrections. He has fallen wholeheartedly for the "rehabilitation model," and has directed his executive team to get busy pursuing that grail.

I'm told legislation is percolating to change the very name of the department to the redundant Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

What do they think the word "corrections" in the department's name refers to?

Since the criminal defense bar is a major bulwark of the Democrat party, that party has always been on the wrong side of the public-safety issue. Democrats constantly find themselves defending criminals and opposing get-tough-on-crime initiatives.

Like so many of their policies, that one is a mystery to me. The burden of most crime falls on the poor, who they claim to represent.

Therefore, when Democrats are in the ascendancy, as they are now in California, the crime rate inevitably goes up, which is what is happening.

State parole officials tell me they have been ordered to not return parole violators to custody for just violating the terms and conditions of parole.

Apparently, the new threshold is just this side of committing another crime. Democrats do this to avoid building enough prisons to house the reasonably foreseeable workload that comes from the historic trends as population rises and the youth cohort expands.

The only problem with their enlightened view is that a new crime mostly means a new victim.

Don't get me wrong; having a debate on crime and punishment is endemic to the exercise of the police powers of the state. I believe there is a whole range of sections in the Health and Safety Code that have been wrongly "felonized," e.g., enforcement thereof has been shifted to the state and away from counties.

And I believe we should do something with inmates during the brief time they are incarcerated.

That is why I named the Donovan prison a "correctional facility" -- to remind staff and inmates why they are there.

That is also why I successfully carried legislation to test and teach failing inmates to read. I also carried legislation to broaden the prison industry authority so that prisoners could learn employable skills and pay back their victims.

I carried legislation to overhaul the department's mental health program, affectionately known in federal court as "The Stirling Report."

The reading program is going OK, but the Democrats have repeatedly gutted the prison industry authority by larding the program up with public employees and narrowing the products that can be made and sold to suit their union bosses. Who wants more qualified electricians flooding the market?

The real policy of corrections should not be cast as one or the other. There are all sorts of inmates. Some can be "rehabilitated," others cannot.

There are men in Vacaville State Prison that are kept naked in double glass walled cells because they are so dangerous that they are rightly classifiable as wild and dangerous animals.

Remember, these guys don't go to state prison on a whim. They work their way past a series of misdemeanors, "local time" punishments and finally get themselves into the state pen only through a continued effort. It takes a lot of criminal talent to get yourself in state prison.

The real policy ought to be this: Redeem the redeemable, restrain the dangerous, and have enough scientific knowledge to know the difference.

The problem is that we do not accomplish any of these.

My legislation creating the Pressley Institute at the University of California, Riverside to study that very issue was discontinued after I left.

There is no substantive study of penology anywhere in the nation: just liberal hand wringing about prisons not being effective. No one knows how to pick out who can be rehabilitated and who cannot.

That, however, will not stop the governor from operating the department on the false premise that such knowledge is common. The real and unstated policy that underlies the Democrat view is "When in doubt, let them out."

We should restrain the dangerous. We don't do that, either. The dangerous guys are let out way too soon, only to maim us again.

Too bad the state has the power to insulate itself from malpractice suits.

We would all make a lot of money off their naivetÈ and incompetence.

Sadly, money will not reimburse the victims of crimes for lives lost and irremediable physical injury to be suffered, which happens every single day.


Stirling is a retired superior court judge who now practices law with the firm of Garrison & McInnis. He is also a former Army officer in addition to having been elected to the San Diego City Council, the State Assembly and the State Senate. He can be reached at larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments sent to this account are viewed by the editor and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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