California legislative leaders have reached an agreement to build 53,000 new prison and jail beds as part of a $7.3 billion construction plan aimed at appeasing federal judges who are threatening to take actions that could lead to the early release of inmates, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Legislators are expected to approve the plan today. The proposal could mean a massive increase for the state’s $10 billion prison system and would rival the decade-long prison building boom that began in the late 1980s. Democratic leaders said the deal will require the state to place a new emphasis on rehabilitation programs for inmates that could lead to fewer inmates returning to prison.
The deal, endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, did not include changes to the criminal sentencing structure or parole system, which many experts have cited as key causes of overcrowding in California prisons and the state’s nation-high recidivism rate. About 70 percent of the state’s convicts return to prison within three years on parole violations or new crimes. California’s 33 prisons house 172,000 inmates in space designed to hold 100,000. The first phase of construction would spend $3.6 billion on new state prison beds; the second phase would spend $2.5 billion, creating a total of 40,000 new prison beds. Another $1.2 billion would go toward building 13,000 new jail beds in counties, which also face overcrowding. In total, the state would add 16,000 beds at existing prisons and build 8,000 beds at new facilities designed for sick or mentally ill inmates. The plan would also build 16,000 beds at new facilities dubbed re-entry centers.