Cell phone smuggling legislation sends weak signal to prisoners 

Last year when California prison guards discovered that mass murderer Charles Manson had obtained a cell phone and made calls and sent messages all over the world, it was graphic evidence of a smuggling epidemic.

Prison personnel confiscate thousands of cell phones from inmates each year, and worry aloud they are being used to plot crimes. But oddly, it is not a crime to smuggle them into prisons or possess them.

Last year, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, won legislative approval for a bill that would have made smuggling a misdemeanor. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, lamenting that the Legislature was unwilling to make possession of a cell phone a felony.

“Although our prisons continue to face drastic budget cuts and overcrowding, it is inexcusable to treat the threat of wireless communications devices in prisons so lightly,” Schwarzenegger said in rejecting Senate Bill 525.

“Signing this measure would mean that smuggling a can of beer into a prison carries with it a greater punishment than delivering a cell phone to the leader of a criminal street gang.”

Padilla has now reintroduced his measure, citing the Manson incident as “a wake-up call to everyone.”

“The proliferation of cell phones in our prisons is out of control and getting worse,” Padilla said, noting that through the first nine months of 2010, prison officials confiscated some 7,000 cell phones.

It is rather shameful that this issue has kicked around the capital for years without being resolved. It also is rather shameful that security in the prison system is evidently so lax.

One would think even cursory searches of prison visitors would discover cell phones.

It makes one wonder whether visitors are, in fact, the chief sources of illicit cell phones, or whether the reputed prices for such devices have tempted those who enter the prisons without undergoing thorough searches — prison employees themselves, including guards.

The Padilla bill is, as Schwarzenegger complained, rather weak. It would impose a fine only on those proven to have the intent to smuggle a cell phone. If a phone is found on a visitor, he or she can simply claim it to be personal property and, as the Padilla bill allows, have the phone returned when leaving the prison.

The measure does not, meanwhile, impose any penalty on an inmate found to possess an illicit phone. If that were a felony that could add years to a prisoner’s term, it would not only curb the traffic, but also encourage inmates to make deals with prosecutors by revealing the smuggler’s identity.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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