Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials 

Jan. 23

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise: "Prison secrecy"

Thwarting public scrutiny of California's prisons is foolish policy, particularly given the corrections system's large cost and numerous legal troubles. Legislators should pass a bill that would give reporters greater access to prison inmates, and end a practice more intended to deter bad publicity than serve any public purpose.

AB 1270, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would allow the media to conduct prearranged interviews with inmates. The bill would also permit reporters to bring pens, paper, audio and video recorders and other newsgathering tools to interviews. Current prison policy mostly limits reporters to talking to randomly encountered prisoners, and forbids setting up face-to-face sessions with specific inmates. The Assembly Appropriations Committee backed AB 1270 on Thursday.

Californians have a direct interest in knowing how the state's prisons operate, without any official filtering of information. Inmate interviews provide crucial insights into the workings of the criminal justice system. Such scrutiny is essential to providing public accountability for the corrections system and the officials in charge of it.

And taxpayers have a legitimate need to keep close watch on the state's prisons. The Legislature's long history of negligence and irresponsibility let prison ills fester, with dismal public consequences. Corrections costs accelerated over the past 15 years, adding to state budget woes. California will spend about $9 billion on corrections this fiscal year — more than the state general fund will contribute to the University of California and California State University systems combined.

The state has also faced a variety of legal challenges to prison conditions. A federal judge in 2005 seized control of the prison medical system and a panel of federal judges in 2009 ordered the state to ease prison crowding. That record hardly suggests that curbing the flow of information about prisons serves any public goal.

Yet three different governors have vetoed eight different versions of this bill since 1998 — often with the excuse that the state should avoid glamorizing criminals. That argument was always flimsy, mindlessly equating news reports with public relations.

The media restrictions are more likely an effort to control negative publicity. Corrections officials instituted the regulations in 1996, after reports of excessive violence and abuses at Pelican Bay State Prison. The reporting grew out of a 1995 federal court ruling that ordered sweeping reforms at the maximum security facility.

Prison policy should have a higher goal than avoiding unflattering news reports. Blocking media coverage deprives the public of a clear understanding of prison issues — which is the worst possible approach for a system in crisis. Public safety should not mean protecting the public from an honest picture of the corrections system.

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Jan. 25.

Los Angeles Times: "CSU pay plan doesn't add up"

Maybe the trustees of California State University need to take a remedial music class. Their tone-deafness is disturbing.

A few months ago, CSU drew widespread criticism for setting the salary for the new president of San Diego State at $400,000 — an increase of $100,000 over what his predecessor had received. Now, the trustees are expected to approve a new compensation policy that, if it had been in place at the time, could have paid him close to $460,000. Salaries for new presidents at other campuses also could increase under the policy.

Some aspects of the proposal make sense. Instead of lumping together all CSU campuses, it divides them into categories depending on how big they are and the size of their research budgets. To help set salary levels for the campuses in each category, it looks at similar universities nationwide.

The problem, as state Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor noted, is that the proposal groups some CSU campuses with universities elsewhere that have more than twice the research funding even though Cal State's primary function doesn't include research. "These institutions appear to unduly raise the corresponding average executive salary," Taylor wrote. The proposal also puts some campuses in the same category as universities with law and medical schools or with much larger endowments.

The trustees should delay the vote — especially after board Chairman Herb Carter on Tuesday suggested an alternate plan to limit increases to 10 percent — and find a more meaningful formula for setting salaries, one that is relevant to CSU's mission and sensitive to economic realities.

At the same time, CSU's severest critics are wrong to suggest that it must not raise executive salaries at all during hard times. A bill by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) would cap the salaries of Cal State presidents at 150% of what the chief justice of the California Supreme Court is paid — currently, about $343,000. It also would ban pay raises for presidents within three years of tuition hikes and require trustees to give first consideration to candidates within the system and the state.

Lieu's frustration with the trustees is understandable, but his proposed remedy would interfere unacceptably with academic operations and could harm the university.

CSU should avoid the academic arms race that has helped push up tuition nationwide, and instead hire the best-qualified candidates it can find while staying within its budget. More important, as Taylor suggests, is that the university should base pay on performance. A $400,000 salary could be perfectly justified for a president who excels at raising private funds, increases graduation rates or helps students earn their degrees faster. But Cal State trustees have done too little to justify the hefty salaries they are on the verge of approving.

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Jan. 23

The (San Bernardino) Sun: "State still has far to go on inmate health care"

It's hard to celebrate California's progress in meeting constitutional health care standards for prison inmates when it's spending the outrageous sum of $10,000 per inmate each year to do it.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson seized control of the prison medical system six years ago after a lawsuit demonstrated that inmates were dying needlessly at the rate of one a week due to medical incompetence. That put the state in violation of federal provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. Earlier this month, Henderson declared he is ready to end the court's oversight April 30, after forcing California to spend billions it would have preferred to spend elsewhere.

The task for the state is clear: The governor and Legislature must not allow prison medical standards to slip so low that the state again violates inmates' basic constitutional rights. At the same time, California must cut its prison health care costs per inmate in half. The long-term goal should be efficiencies that put the state in the median range of what other states spend on prison medical costs.

California has cut preventable deaths in prison by more than 10 percent. That benefits taxpayers by reducing litigation that was costing millions of dollars every year. The next step is to catch health problems before they get out of hand. For example, diabetes is rampant among older inmates and costs a fortune to treat if it's allowed to become chronic.

Reducing prison overcrowding will help, since cutting the number of inmates lowers health care costs. But the new policy of housing nonviolent inmates in county jails instead of state prisons won't help taxpayers in the long run if costs soar at the local level.

California must also find a way to treat inmates' mental health problems. More than half of the state's prison inmates have symptoms of severe mental illness, and studies show that mentally ill patients who are released from prison are much more likely to commit crimes and become incarcerated again. California has the highest recidivism rate of any prison system in the nation. Getting it under control would dramatically reduce both court and prison costs.

The prison health care system has come a long way since the first court-appointed receiver declared it "disgraceful" and "Abu Ghraib and Gitmo times 33." Unsanitary conditions permeated the 33 prisons, and nurses and doctors often didn't have access to even basics such as bandages and X-ray machines to treat or diagnose inmates.

California doesn't need a Taj Mahal of prison health systems, especially since law-abiding residents have trouble getting the health insurance and care they need. But the state must meet basic standards for inmate care at the lowest cost possible. If they don't, more lawsuits will bring the courts back into the fray.

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Jan. 20

The (Stockton) Record: "Take the good with the bad/We should not ignore progress state has made with prison "

California may soon regain control of its prisons.

A federal judge ordered the state to prepare for the end of a receivership that has lasted six years and cost the state billions.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson cited improving conditions in the prison system in a three-page order Tuesday that says "the end of the Receivership appears to be in sight."

One of those improvements can be seen immediately southeast of Stockton where a 1,722-bed, $900 million prison hospital is being built.

It was severe overcrowding and health care so lacking that it was ruled unconstitutional — an average of one inmate a week was dying of neglect or malpractice - that put the system in receivership in 2006.

"California's prisons deteriorated to the point of an almost total federal court takeover," said Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Since then, the Legislature has approved a prison realignment program that eventually will send about 30,000 inmates into county jails. Health care has improved, Henderson said, and overcrowding is being addressed.

"Significant progress has been made," Henderson wrote, citing the receiver J. Clark Kelso's own report to the federal court last week.

"While some critical work remains outstanding — most notably on construction issues - it is clear that many of the goals of the Receivership have been accomplished."

It is hard enough to manage a prison population that, at one point, had ballooned to more than 160,000 inmates at 33 prisons. It is harder still when a federal judge and a court-appointed receiver are looking over your shoulder, and enjoy the support of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to back them up. It's next to impossible to do all this in a state that is billions in the hole.

Somehow California managed, and that accomplishment should not be overlooked or dismissed.

In a much larger sense, the state's accomplishment is the same kind of we-do-not-like-it-but-we-are-going-to-make-it-work-anyway attitude San Joaquin County officials assumed when first told the prison hospital would be in Stockton.

They swallowed hard and negotiated harder. The result is a facility that is creating hundreds of construction jobs now and will create about 2,500 permanent jobs later.

Sometimes good things come out of bad situations.

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Jan. 19

The Vacaville Reporter: "A matter of state priorities"

Gov. Jerry Brown pitched his agenda for 2012 on Jan. 18 as he presented the State of the State to a joint session of the California Legislature.

While a proposed tax hike going before voters in November is at the top of his list, the governor included other goals, too, including finalizing a plan to fix the Delta, starting construction on a high-speed rail system and improving the state's education system.

There is no question that a comprehensive approach to the Delta is necessary and it is encouraging that the governor and U.S. Interior Secretary have agreed to put the basic elements of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in place by this summer. But deciding how to divvy up Delta water or the best way to convey it are only part of the picture. Plans must also take into account how to protect the Delta during earthquakes, floods and other catastrophes that could seriously affect the state's water supply.

A comprehensive approach to protecting the Delta is going to require significant capital, which is why The Reporter Editorial Board has serious qualms about the governor's push to spend billions of dollars on a high-speed rail system.

Gov. Brown pitched the rail project as a "wise investment" to serve a growing state, an investment that will cost less than adding roads and airports. "Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking," he said. "I understand that feeling, but I don't share it."

While the Editorial Board is divided about whether a high-speed rail system is viable in California, it is united in the belief that, without fixing the Delta, the state cannot grow — and could lose population should a serious calamity occur before levees are shorn up.

The state's economy being what it is, taxpayers are not in a position to afford everything. Choices must be made. The priority right now should be water: repairing Delta levees, creating better water conveyance systems, finding new water sources and planning to adjust to changing weather patterns.

On the matter of education, however, the Editorial Board supports the governor's proposal to return schools to local control. Rather than "concentrating more and more decision-making at the federal or state level," Gov. Brown rightly observed, "we should set broad goals and have a good accountability system, leaving the real work to those closest to the students."

Giving school districts the appropriate funds and the authority to solve their unique problems is preferable to requiring every teacher to follow the same state-mandated classroom script. And developing a "qualitative system" of assessing teachers by visiting, observing and evaluating classrooms is a much better approach than the current system of judging teachers by student test scores.

As always, of course, the devil is in the details. Educators, administrators and school trustees should work with the governor to develop what could be reasonable repairs to California's ailing school system.

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Jan. 22.

Santa Cruz Sentinel: "California voters disenfranchised"

When was the last time California mattered in a presidential election?

Although California is the most populous state in the nation, and heavily Democratic, the only president who was born in this state was a Republican, Richard Nixon. Two others who lived in California, Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan, also were Republicans.

Oh sure, candidates raise tons of money in this state — President Barack Obama seems to be flying in every few weeks for major fundraisers in Silicon Valley or Hollywood and major Republican candidates also use the state as campaign ATMs — but in terms of influencing the outcome, not so much.

The state's late primary, this year June 5th, is usually blamed, since party nominees almost always have long since been chosen.

For Democratic voters this might not matter, since Obama is running unopposed and he's almost guaranteed to win the state in November. But for Republicans, caught up in an engrossing if often sordid and brutal long campaign now down to four candidates, the primary might as well be in 2013 for all the influence it will have.

But will June 5 prove decisive? Unlikely, since there's three months and nearly two dozen primaries still to go before California weighs in.

Four years ago, in an effort to matter, California's presidential primary was moved up to February. Unfortunately, the date was too early — while Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary, Obama's candidacy was still gathering steam.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who knows something about running for president, signed legislation returning the presidential primary to June, once again consolidating it with the statewide primary election. The consolidation was estimated to save the state about $100 million in election costs.

Not only does it seem somehow unjust that the nation's largest state is shut out regarding who will be nominated to lead the country, but the states that do seem decisive — Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month, South Carolina on Saturday and Florida this week — have little in common with the cares and concerns of Californians.

For instance, California is more diverse — nearly 38 percent Latino, compared to 4.3 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire, combined, and 19 percent in South Carolina and Florida. The number of foreign-born residents is higher, nearly 27 percent in California compared to 4 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire, and many more Californians speak a language other than English at home. Housing is far more expensive and unemployment is higher. Infrastructure needs and the tech industry dominate headlines in California, but not in early primary states.

This does more than simply disenfranchise California voters. The lack of relevance in presidential selection means issues such as immigration, water policy, education, and air quality and climate change, have received little or no attention in the early debates.

There's yet another facet of modern presidential politics where the rest of the country differs from California: the prevalence and importance of the super PACs. These campaign spending arms, spawned by the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, are raising huge sums of mostly anonymous cash. Before the court's ruling, PACs had to raise money from individuals, no more than $5,000 a person over a year, but couldn't take cash from unions or companies. After Citizens United, however, the committees have no limits on the money coming from unions or corporations, or any other organizations or individuals, as long as the committee isn't working directly with a candidate's campaign. The committees run expensive ad campaigns blasting one candidate or another — without having to identify where the money came from until long after the polls close.

California is different, however. The state has a version of super PACs, known as "independent expenditure committees" — but the state has much better disclosure laws. This may not stop the flood of money trying to influence elections, but allows voters to see where it's coming from.

It's yet another indication of how California voters are shut out: The super PACs raise money from unknown donors in California, then use it in other states to influence who will be chosen the next president.

California's political leadership should find a way to bring that influence back home.

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