Brown, prison union walking hand-in-hand

California Correctional Peace Officers Association
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By Dan Morain, Senior editor The Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1E

Jerry Brown is preparing to dance with the ones who brung him, specifically 31,000 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Jilted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the union cozied up to Brown by spending $1.4 million to help elect him. It was part of an effort to regain some of the dominance it once had in the Capitol and win a labor contract, after having operated without one since 2006.

Brown has responded, giving union leaders VIP treatment at his invitation-only election night party in Oakland and flying to Las Vegas earlier this month to address the union’s convention.

In a speech that was closed to the public, Brown warned union members that there may not be much if any pay raise. But he also talked about his strong relationship with the union’s leaders and declared that he intends to work out a labor pact with them once in office.

“He reached out to a large segment of his employees and gave them hope,” said Chuck Alexander, the union’s second in command. “It made people feel a little bit better.”

To the broader public, Brown promises to focus on California’s dire financial situation. Although he has made no pronouncement of note about prisons, Brown won’t be able to solve the budget crisis without confronting the money pit that is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That will mean wrestling with the union.

California was spending $6 billion on prisons when Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, $28,000 per inmate per year. This year, the state will spend $9.3 billion on corrections, $49,500 per inmate.

Several prison issues await the past and future governor, and they all come at a cost.

Almost immediately, Brown will need to decide whether to proceed with the Schwarzenegger administration’s plan to build a new death row, essentially a new prison within the grounds of San Quentin State Prison.

A lifelong capital punishment foe, Brown undoubtedly could find a better use for the $500 million or so it would cost to build the death row to house 700-plus condemned inmates, almost all of whom will die in prison of natural causes. But prison officials say the new facility is needed to replace cellblocks built decades ago.

Then there are the lawsuits over prison crowding and substandard health care that have bedeviled the state for more than a decade.

In the first few months of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on California’s long-running prison litigation and decide the question of whether the state must vastly reduce prison overcrowding. Brown will have no choice but to respond.

He could build more prisons. That would cost billions. He could ship more inmates to other states. The union would object. He could free roughly 40,000 inmates and hope none commits a Willie Horton-like crime. Ugly choices, all.

And there is the matter of the union, an organization that has advocated for prison expansion by funding the “three strikes” sentencing law and repeatedly lobbying against legislation that might have shortened prison sentences.

Under its founding president, Don Novey, the union built its clout the old-fashioned way, by spending millions to elect politicians including Gov. Pete Wilson and Gov. Gray Davis. Wilson gave the union many concessions. Davis gave the union even more.

CCPOA’s current president, Mike Jimenez, has sought to portray the union as gentler, appearing to advocating sentencing reform and aligning itself with prisoners’ rights attorneys by filing a brief in the overcrowding case before the Supreme Court.

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