- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Oct. 30

San Jose Mercury News on criminal justice reform:

In an op-ed posted online Friday, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen cheered on sentencing reform in California that’s allowing many minor offenders a second chance through shorter prison terms and more drug treatment and other help on the outside. It is, by the way, saving money.

Proposition 47, the reform measure, was a major pendulum swing. And this week, the federal pendulum began its own swing back to reason: Federal officials began freeing 6,000 prisoners, at least a symbolic blow to the tough-on-crime dogma that has made the United States home to the world’s largest prison population - 2 million people nationwide. That approach has never been sustainable in any society for both economic and social reasons.

Last year the U.S. spent $7.3 billion to keep 209,000 people in federal detention. California alone spends another $10 billion annually. The vast drain on resources coupled with decades of declining crime has forced a national re-examination of the wisdom of mass incarceration. There should be no turning back.

A year ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders. Of that first 6,000 freed, about a third will be deported. Unfortunately, many of the rest may not find the support they need to readjust to society, so recidivism is a concern.

California’s reforms have put more support in place, and Rosen says recidivism here is only 5 percent among those affected by the program. In 2014, the overall rate of people returning to prison for new crimes or parole violation was 61 percent.

The federal release comes on the heels of another, even more significant move to overhaul punishment in the United States: In October, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, a conservative Republican from Iowa, and liberal Democrat Sen. Richard J. Durbin from Illinois introduced what they hailed as the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.

The rare bipartisan bill would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders and in some cases allow judges greater discretion in sentencing. It would also ban juvenile solitary confinement, which California can’t seem to bring itself to do despite strong evidence of the harm it causes.

This swing toward a more rehabilitative approach is the right path.

In February, the Brennan Center for Justice released a study on the decades-long decline in crime. The authors concluded there’s no clear link between increasing incarceration rates and declining crime rates; in fact, the report argues that prison’s effectiveness as a deterrent has subsided.

In California, some blame the state’s Proposition 47 reforms for recent increases in property crimes. But it is far too early to rule out other causes and see if there’s a connection.

Like California, it took the federal prisons a while to get into this mess. It will take time to get out. But finally, locally and nationally, we’re headed in the right direction.

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Nov. 3

The Vallejo Times Herald on admitting more California students in the UC system:

The University of California was founded in 1868 primarily to provide an excellent higher education for Californians, right?

It’s not a dangerous equivocation to say, well, yes and no.

There have always been UC students who weren’t residents of the state - at least when they applied for entry - as well as students who aren’t Americans.

Teaching and studying isn’t the be-all, end-all of the now 10-campus system, either, the carping of taxpaying old alums aside. A university by definition is an institute of both teaching and independent research, and UC researchers and faculty have been responsible for 5,505 inventions and 2,497 patents over the decades. The faculty has won 62 Nobel Prizes. They don’t need to be teaching Econ 101 to be contributing to our intellectual and economic treasures.

But the question of to what extent the actual undergraduate student body at the university ought to be made up of eligible California students has come to a head in recent years as budget-strapped administrators have increasingly looked to out-of-state students to balance the books.

The Los Angeles Times reported that UC last year took in $400 million more in fees because of the higher tuition costs non-Californians must pay. Fully one-fifth of the freshmen entering the university this fall are from outside California. And at the sought-after UCLA and UC Berkeley campuses, almost a third of those entering classes are non-Californians.

Finally, after actively seeking students outside the state, UC President Janet Napolitano admits the high percentages at UC Berkeley and UCLA “may be at about as maximum as they can be.” They are more than that. Californians don’t mind sharing our intellectual powerhouse schools. And we appreciate the help with the budget. But it is clear that push has come to shove, and that qualified students who grew up here with dreams of attending the state’s best public university are instead seeing their seats filled by out-of-staters for reasons that have nothing to do with qualifications.

UC officials get defensive about the numbers by saying that one way they have admitted non-Californians is by increasing the size of freshman classes. They also note other states’ systems have much higher percentages of nonresidents. Those answers don’t cut it. If more students are warranted, let them be Californians. And California is not other states. But mere finger-pointing also won’t cut it.

The ultimate answer is for California to invest more tax dollars in UC campuses. And to help us balance their budgets on the cost side, administrators must do a far better job of cutting bureaucratic overhead on each campus and at the Oakland headquarters. We’re happy to pay for Nobel laureates and great Econ 101, but not so much for desk jockey vice presidents.

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Nov. 3

Los Angeles Daily News on California’s high-speed rail project:

If a sunny outlook and the ability to ignore bad news were the only attributes needed to run a huge enterprise, California’s high-speed rail project would be rolling along.

Because there’s no doubt that Dan Richard, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s chairman, and Jeff Morales, the authority’s chief executive, excel on both counts.

Richard’s sunny outlook was on full display when the bullet train bosses solicited companies worldwide to form a partnership with the authority and got no takers - at least none willing to risk any of their own money.

Some of the 36 big construction and engineering firms that responded expressed reservations about the funding of the project, the likely need for long-term state subsidies once service begins and whether the project can meet its construction schedule.

Richard told the Los Angeles Times that the he was encouraged by all this.

“We got a huge response,” he said. “You wouldn’t have seen all these people put ink to paper if they didn’t think this was a real program. That’s what I took out of this.”

Now we know: The bullet train is a real program.

Much worse than the look-on-the-bright-side attitude, though, is the tendency to ignore bad news altogether - and to keep it secret.

A confidential 2013 report by the authority’s main project management contractor estimated that the cost of building the first phase of the rail line “had risen 31 percent to $40 billion,” the Times reported.

But the rail authority did not release that report by New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, declining a Public Records Act request. The Times obtained a copy of the report from “an engineer close to the project.”

Morales told the newspaper he was unaware of the Parsons Brinckerhoff cost projection. In most organizations, heads would roll if the CEO were kept in the dark about a high-level construction management company’s projection of a cost overrun of 31 percent on a multi-billion-dollar project.

A spokeswoman for the authority refused to discuss details of the Parsons Brinckerhoff cost estimate but said it was “superseded” by a 2014 business plan which estimated the entire project at $68 billion.

Some Assembly Republicans - Scott Wilk of Valencia and three colleagues from the Central Valley - seized on that to claim the rail authority is keeping two sets of books, one internal and another it shares with the Legislature.

They wrote a letter last week to Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, asking her to subpoena records from the high-speed rail authority: the 2013 confidential report, a list of state officials briefed on the report, internal documents discussing the report and records pertaining to preparation of the 2014 business plan and two later reports to the Legislature.

Atkins is unlikely to comply. She should, to assure skeptical voters that they’re getting good information, if nothing else.

After all, voters approved a bond measure for the high-speed rail seven years ago when they were told it would cost $33 billion for the whole thing. That ballooned to $98 billion, only to be trimmed back to $68 billion for a lesser project than voters had approved.

What Californians really deserve is another vote on the whole project. They’re not likely to get that, but they should at least have the best information available on what it will cost.

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Nov. 3

The Los Angeles Times on providing services for drug offenders after they are released:

As 6,000 drug offenders are released from federal prisons months or even years earlier than they had expected due to Obama administration criminal justice reforms, and as thousands more leave California prisons after having their felony sentences reclassified as misdemeanors under Proposition 47, the surge in inmate releases may focus the public’s attention on the wrong problem.

Prisoners come home every day. About 9,000 California inmates completed their sentences and returned home each month during the worst of the state’s prison crowding crisis. Their prospects for staying on the straight-and-narrow were not great because in-prison treatment and rehabilitation programs were too few to meet the need, and because the prisons were (according to federal judges) “criminogenic” - meaning the environment made it more likely that inmates who returned to their neighborhoods would return to crime. Yet as large numbers left prison, crime rates kept falling. Offenders were reabsorbed into society in fairly large numbers without touching off crime waves.

Those releases, however, have been accompanied by increases in the number of people living in misery on the streets who suffer from mental illness and drug addiction. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see the connection. The problem of draconian punishments for nonviolent acts such as drug possession is being addressed in large part by the resentencing and release of prisoners. But prisoners coming home without drug or mental health treatment, without jobs, without housing and without re-entry counseling and support - this is a different problem and is a long way from resolution. When inmates were being released at a steady pace of 9,000 or 10,000 a month, society’s failure to offer assistance could be conveniently ignored. That will be harder to do as sentences are shortened and the number of prisoners coming home becomes larger.

In California, Proposition 47 may help by directing the savings realized from the lower prison population to rehabilitation programs, along with education and victim services. But no such funds will be available until late next year. Counties already are saving money from prosecuting fewer felony cases, now that drug possession and some theft crimes are misdemeanors, and can choose to apply those savings to re-entry services. But most have a long way to go before they have developed a contracting and monitoring infrastructure that can produce the right services in the right measure. They have to step up the pace. Over-incarceration was a mistake that can be corrected. But it will take time, and it will not come cheap.

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Oct. 21

Whittier Daily News on fines for over-usage of water during drought:

On the whole, Californians came through again last month, meeting and even exceeding Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate to cut back on residential water use by 25 percent during our fourth year of severe drought.

For the month of September, the overall savings was 26 percent, and over the long, hot summer, beginning in June, Californians actually managed a combined 28 percent savings - remarkable work when the temptation is just to put the hose out there on that browning lawn and let ‘er rip.

We actually started out slowly after the governor’s April executive order, which was a follow-up to his January declaration of a drought emergency. Old irrigation habits die hard - just as those drought-intolerant fuchsias on the front walkway did once deprived of their daily soaking. But soon enough most of us got with the program, as did most of the water agencies that serve our cities and neighborhoods. Whether it is the massive Department of Water and Power in the city of Los Angeles or the tiny water companies that dot the San Gabriel Valley - some with just two or three employees, some of which still rely at least in part on the trickle of year-round water that still flows in some canyons in the mountains - they gently used the carrot approach to help educate their customers about the need to save water during these dry times.

Most. Because as our news group reported last week, the state of California is for the first time following up on its warning that it would be forced to levy fines on water agencies and cities that just can’t seem to get with the program.

Embarrassingly for us, as proud Southern Californians, all four of the areas hit with those fines from September over-usage are from down here rather than from the water-richer northern reaches of the state. Our sistren and brethren up there already think we’re ungrateful recipients of their largesse. Can’t we at least show them we know how to turn down the spigot?

Many of us can. But not the fine folks of Beverly Hills, the Coachella Valley Water District, Indio and Redlands. Each one of those cities and areas was fined $500 a day for 122 days of noncompliance, adding up to $61,000, the maximum allowed under the emergency ordinance set out by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Coachella and Indio have at least the excuse of being true desert regions with, er, lots of fairways to keep green and fluffy - to the extent that will continue to be a good excuse in California’s dry future. Beverly Hills has the excuse of being … what, rich?

But we are sincerely disappointed at the numbers out of Redlands, one of the most historic and charming cities in all of Southern California, with of course a rich agricultural heritage. While the City Council will at its meeting tonight discuss finding ways to conserve, why has it taken so long? While other cities have for six months limited residential irrigation to at most two days a week - many down to one day now until next summer - Redlands continues to allow yard-watering every other day. Its civic leaders have known for months they were out of compliance. All summer long it was off target by about 11 percent, wasting 484 million gallons, and yet, as with Beverly Hills, issued not a single fine. Tonight it needs to join the rest of California and get serious.

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