At Play With Prison Guards

December 6 2002

In the final days before state lawmakers confront the state's staggering debt, three of the Legislature's four top leaders are among several elected officials being wined and dined by the well-heeled union representing California's prison guards at a Maui beach resort where the cobalt Pacific washes onto Kaanapali Beach.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks and Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga insist that their attendance at the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. event will not influence their decisions at next week's special legislative session on slashing the state's multibillion-dollar deficit. Surely, fond memories of mai tais at the hotel's 142-yard freshwater swimming pool will not lead them to ignore fiscal discipline.

Everyone should share in the pain of draconian budget cuts. That includes not only public school teachers, uninsured children and nurses but prison guards, who won an astonishing 37% raise last year after the union, in the 2001-02 campaign finance cycle, gave $15,000 to Wesson, $6,000 to Brulte and $2,000 to Cox. The legislators say they are footing their own air fare and hotel bills -- most likely out of their campaign funds, which is legal in California.

Cox's spokesman, Peter DeMarco, says his boss wasn't going for the island flavors at the Keka'a Terrace or the white and gold beaches but rather to "have discussions with his constituencies .... If they had held it in Sacramento, he'd have gone to Sacramento," DeMarco said.

That's reassuring. After all, no amount of Hawaiian mahalo, or gratitude, should deter legislators from rethinking the state's disastrously inefficient, $900-million-a-year parole system, which returns about 90,000 parolees to prison each year, only to see most of them re-offend, usually for technical violations like flunking a drug test or blowing off an interview with their parole officer.

The parole system is the engine of the state's prison industry, generating jobs for guards. Nationally, only 35% of people coming into state prisons are parole violators. In California, 70% of all admissions to state prison are for parole violations.

The grim realities of parole might seem a world away from the lava-rock waterways, lilting slack-key guitars and garden paths at the Sheraton Maui resort. Even so, Wesson, Cox and Brulte should down a cup of souvenir Kona coffee Monday morning and confront those realities responsibly. As for the guards union, why not hold next year's conference in Bakersfield?
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