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Oct. 22, 2012
Correctional officers union stays low-profile for election

By Jon Ortiz

After more than two decades as a major player in California's crime and punishment policy, the state's correctional officers union has embraced a quiet – and cheaper – pragmatism.

In a bygone era, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association would have unleashed a campaign carpet-bombing on a Nov. 6 ballot initiative that repeals the state's death penalty and another that softens the "three-strikes" sentencing law that has become the union's legacy.

But this year CCPOA has spent relatively little on politics. It hasn't even taken a stand on the three-strikes measure, Proposition 36.

"We've taken some different positions than we've taken in the past," said union spokesman JeVaughn Baker. "It's not like the old days, when CCPOA championed every bill that was tough on crime."

The union's lower-profile political posture was shaped by a federal court mandate to shrink California's prison population, and reinforced by CCPOA's strained finances. With the prison population on the decline, the union's long-standing strategy of advocating stiffer sentences and more prisons – stances that resulted in more jobs for correctional officers – has been upended.

Moreover, the state's political climate has cooled to the lock-'em-up politics that fueled a prison-building boom in the 1980s and 1990s, swelled CCPOA's ranks and gave it leverage to push on a range of issues, from higher pay to tougher sentencing laws.

CCPOA founder and former president Don Novey built the union with the tough-on-crime playbook. His successor, Mike Jimenez, isn't as committed to that agenda.

As a result, the union has drawn a tighter circle of concerns that excludes the kind of big-picture politics it successfully promoted for years, including the three-strikes law, said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford criminal law professor.

Now the focus is "bread-and-butter union issues," she said, "like members' health care, contracts, benefits, layoffs and job transfers."

The pivotal moment, observers agree, arrived last year when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's order that the state ease prison overcrowding. Lawmakers responded with a plan that sentences more convicts to local jails and shrinks the state prison population through attrition.

Layoffs followed.

"That ruling looms large for CCPOA," Petersilia said, because it caps California's inmate population at roughly 110,000 prisoners, about 25 percent fewer than a year ago. Even before that, the state had suspended hiring prison officers to save money.

The union ended 2011 with about 29,000 members, according to state payroll data, down about 10 percent from its peak. More layoffs are coming as the state prison and parole systems continue downsizing, cutting more deeply into CCPOA's dues revenue.

"Membership is down," Petersilia said. "Money is down."

Meanwhile, CCPOA's expenses are up.

Union officials this year agreed to make annual six-figure payments into 2021 to settle a $3.5 million dispute over what it owed the state to cover members' salary and benefits when they worked full time on CCPOA business.

The union's resources also are tied up in a federal defamation lawsuit filed by an ousted employee of a CCPOA affiliate. The union has to make quarterly $500,000 installments to secure a multimillion-dollar judgment – $2.5 million so far – while it appeals the case.

Money aside, CCPOA has little incentive to join the debate on Proposition 34 and Proposition 36.

Spending money on the three-strikes initiative would make sense for CCPOA if the law would somehow reverse the prison system's downsizing, said Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota sociologist who has written extensively about CCPOA. But it won't.

"There are no more prisons being built," Page said, "and there won't be anytime soon."

After backing Gov. Jerry Brown's 2010 campaign, the union has negotiated furloughs for prison officers and workplace rules that help speed realignment.

"For so long they caught so much flak as anti-reformers who were absent-mindedly tough on crime," Page said. "They're just not committed to that agenda anymore."

That's a distinct difference from 1994, when voters approved life sentences for some third-time felony offenders. CCPOA was a key player in the campaign.

During the preceding decade and the one that followed, CCPOA's growth gave it the resources to back victims' rights groups that lent moral authority to the union's agenda, as well as the financial clout to elect friends and punish foes.

In 2005 it kicked in more than $3 million to help defeat a package of initiatives proposed by then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A year later, CCPOA spent $500,000 fighting a three-strikes initiative that wasn't much different from this year's ballot measure.

This year the union has given $350,000 to the campaign supporting Brown's tax proposal and spent another $350,000 on ads opposed to another measure, Proposition 32, which would ban payroll-deducted money from politics.

It's given nothing to campaigns to defeat Proposition 34, the death penalty measure, or Proposition 36, which softens three-strikes.

A spokesman for the group fighting to keep capital punishment on the books, Mitch Zak, said the campaign "remains hopeful that they will contribute to preserve the death penalty."

In a mailer to members, the union didn't even mention three-strikes, an omission that underscores CCPOA's evolving politics.

"Opponents of the (three-strikes) law have expressed legitimate concerns," said CCPOA spokesman Baker. "That point of view deserves discussion and consideration."

The union would never have said that before, Stanford's Petersilia said, and it highlights how the group has recalibrated its agenda.

"Big initiatives, big policy debates, those are a luxury they can't afford right now," she said. "We're in different times."

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