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New California Prisons Chief Called 'Tough, Fair, Reform Minded'

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Jeffrey Beard, the former head of Pennsylvania's prisons, favors shorter sentences and community treatment.

By Chris Levister

In May 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons were so bad that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Pennsylvania’s corrections chief Jerry Beard was on the case, literally.

"He came to California in 2010 to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs in the overcrowding lawsuit," said former, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Matthew Cate.

"In his opinion, it was impossible to run an effective corrections system at 200 percent capacity. He did that without pay, because he really believed California needed relief from overcrowding."

65-year-old Beard who led the Pennsylvania prison system for nearly a decade is Governor Jerry Brown's nominee to become the state’s next corrections and rehabilitations chief.

If the California State Senate confirms him, he'll lead one of the largest prison systems in the nation, rattled by transition and mired in politics.

Since 2010, Beard has worked as a consultant, and done work with the California Department of Corrections.

The position requires Senate confirmation and pays $225K annually. He will replace Cate, who recently stepped down to become the leader of the California State Association of Counties.

Cate said his former mentor is the right man at the right time.

“He’s tough, fair, politically savvy and a bit of a nerd. Cate praised Beard’s management style and philosophy favoring community treatment and rehabilitation for non violent offenders.”

“He has a vast amount of experience working with families, community organizations, and stakeholders,” Cate said. “That’s the future of corrections.”

Though an official start date was not announced, Beard joins Brown's administration at a critical time.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has until Jan. 7 to produce a plan for reducing prison crowding or face the renewed threat of federal orders to release inmates early.

Brown said Beard has the experience California needs.

"In the face of a plethora of Federal court decisions and the bold realignment enacted by the Legislature, Jeff Beard has arrived at the right time to take the next steps in returning California's parole and correctional institutions to their former luster," Brown said in a statement announcing the appointment.

California has about 133,000 inmates and more than 46,000 employees but is reducing the size of both as it tries to cut costs and reduce the population in crowded prisons to comply with federal court orders.

A 2011 law Brown approved has been sending less serious offenders to local jails instead of state prisons, leaving behind a more violent inmate population.

William DiMascio directs the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an inmate advocacy group in Philadelphia. He described Beard as “a very intelligent guy” and “highly ethical”.

DiMascio said Beard, a psychologist, was always particularly concerned with making sure families could visit with relatives on the inside. He initiated one of the first video conferencing visitation programs in the country.

Beard's successor in Pennsylvania says Beard will fit right in.

"I think you guys in California hit a home run," said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

Wetzel, who was appointed eight months after Beard retired, told the L.A. Times, the former director weighed in frequently with crucial advice and provided input on new legislation intended to reduce prison crowding in that state and on expanding community treatment and diversion programs.

The new corrections chief faces tough sledding, the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments to appeal a federal court's ruling last year that the state’s prison system would have to release 40,000 prisoners to cope with overcrowding so severe that it violated their human rights. At the peak of overcrowding, more than 144,000 inmates were incarcerated in prisons that were designed to hold about 80,000.

In 2008, Beard lent support to a Pennsylvania proposal to ease county jail crowding by sending felons serving more than two years to state prison. But it allowed for medical release and early release of nonviolent offenders who completed treatment and education programs.

Don Specter, head of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and lead attorney on the prison overcrowding case, also praised the choice.

Specter told member station KQED in San Francisco that Beard's ability to launch a solid rehabilitation system in Pennsylvania's prisons impressed him. Mostly, he said, he's excited about change.

"I think it’s important to get new perspectives," Specter said. "That’s something that’s been lacking in California prisons for decades. I think it’s terrific that we will have somebody from the outside to bring in some new ideas and move California into the mainstream of what other systems in the country are doing.”

Jesse Lee Gibson who served 8 years in Pennsylvania’s prison system praised Beard’s tough but compassionate stance on corrections.

“He believes the punishment should fit the crime. But he never loses sight of the rehabilitation/inmate education component,” said Gibson who heads an inmate literacy program in Philadelphia.

“He frequently visited the prisons. He listened to the prisoners and fought to cut spending on corrections. He kept lower-level offenders closer to their families and provided greater access to rehabilitation programs.”

Gibson says Beard was not afraid to stand up to those who insisted on “lock em up and throw away the key policies,” referring to California’s much maligned three strikes law.

Last month, California voters approved Proposition 36, the initiative overhauled the ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. From now on, only felons with a violent third strike will be sentenced to life.

Those previously sentenced can petition to have their sentences commuted.

Beard has his work cut out, said Cate.

“He has an opportunity to bring some innovative changes to the system he once criticized, said Cate. “He’s certainly up to the task.”

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