Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't done battling federal judges over plans to relieve California prison overcrowding.
But as Schwarzenegger's last year in office approaches, much of the burden for cutting state inmate numbers will fall to the chief executive who follows him.
Schwarzenegger filed a plan last week to ease overcrowding that falls well short of a demand by a three-judge panel that he reduce the population by 40,000 inmates within two years.
That means the four declared gubernatorial candidates as well as Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is widely expected to run, face questions about how they would act to fix what everyone acknowledges is a broken state corrections system.
In conversations with The Bee, they've laid out two distinct visions:
Two of the Republican candidates, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, have rejected proposals that would let inmates out early or keep some parole violators out of prison. The two have also called for building more prisons to relieve overcrowding and sending inmates to other states with surplus bed space.
On the other side are Democrat Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, and Republican Tom Campbell, a former congressman, both of whom support reworking prison and parole guidelines to divert more inmates into parole and keeping some parole violators out of prison.
Brown, in interviews with The Bee, declined to comment on specific reform proposals, saying that as attorney general he has to enforce whatever proposals become law.
But in the past he has been harshly critical of a prison system that he said grew as a result of media-driven fears and profiteering by private corrections companies and prison guards.
Both he and Newsom said that reducing the state's nation-high recidivism rate - estimated at more than 70 percent - would go a long way to easing prison overcrowding.
"We're simply not preparing these prisoners for life outside of the system," Newsom said, "and the issue of re-entry programs becomes critical. Therein lies our big focus, at least mine."
Whitman and Poizner, on the other hand, have tried to out-tough each other, railing against legislation passed last month by the state Senate that would have let some inmates out earlier and appointed a commission to rework state sentencing laws. The ultimate version of the bill passed this month did not include the sentencing commission or a provision to release more than 6,000 inmates to home detention.
"You have to be a really bad person to get into state prison," Poizner said. "So I'm opposed to releasing people who are dangerous, absolutely opposed. That's no way to balance the budget."
Whitman went even further, saying she opposed rewriting any prison and parole guidelines that would shorten prison terms for any inmate.
"The most important role government has is public safety," Whitman said. "It's very important to be consistent."
Campbell, on the other hand, is bucking the prevailing wisdom in his party. He backed both the Senate version and the final bill although both shorten prison terms of some inmates.
"We have an opportunity to direct a more effective prison system," Campbell said. "I'd rather approach this pragmatically, through outsourcing of prisoners, developing a triage of parole violators and focusing on more violent offenders in prisons."
According to John Hipp, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, department of criminology, law and society, the reality laid out by research falls somewhere in the middle of the two positions.
Hipp studied parolees and crime rates in Sacramento from 2003 to 2006 and found that reports of aggravated assault, robbery and burglary mostly increased in neighborhoods that received parolees.
But crime rates decreased in parolee-receiving neighborhoods with longtime residents and increased more slowly when nonprofit groups and other supportive services were available to parolees.
"There's not a blanket statement about parolees and prisons," Hipp said. "There's no good way to do it, but by being careful about who you're releasing, you can do it right."