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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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0 # Darla Anderson 2013-01-10 21:57
Mr. Beard, I beg you to look into something I find shocking!!! Men with 1 strike, but charged with 2 strikes. See my husband, James Spain, G-68567. First & only strike: vehicular manslaughter DUI from about 30 years ago. He is labelled a second striker, Yet: NO SECOND STRIKE. This has exacerbated his ability to get the normal credits that he should otherwise be entitled to. WHAT IS THE SECOND STRIKE?? Jim did not have a strikeable offense. Jim has been working at the fire camps for the last 3 1/2 years as a firefighter slave, & is to be released in 43 days. HOW IS HE CONSIDERED A SECOND-STRIKER?? We need to know!!! This is not an isolated case; many are there for one strike, yet newer 'offenses' are being called strikes, though they are not strikeable offenses. I hope to see very soon, that the voters would vote in a new law: No one goes to prison except for violent current felonies. I do not believe in enhanced sentencing. My husband had two years added to his sentence for priors.
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-4 # iHateDirtBags 2012-12-30 18:05
How can scumbags who refuse rehabilitation receive such services. Inmates are criminals who only care abour gang activity. They dont care about anything else but crime and homosexual activity.
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-2 # Don 2012-12-29 15:59
This guy is perfect for California. He is the inmate lovingest official you will be able to find outside of a major city.
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-1 # Lois Ahrens 2012-12-28 14:54
Hopefully when CA senators, who must vote to confirm Beard, find out about his actual record in Pennsylvania, they will insist that Gov. Brown continue his search. Beard is no reformer. Under Beard's authority 2,500 prisoners were held in solitary confinement in PA many for decades. Solitary is used to punish the politically active and cage the mentally ill.
For your readers who want to learn more about Beard and PA, I suggest they go to http://solitarywatch.com/?s=Pennsylvania.
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+2 # Barbara Kenne 2012-12-28 06:29
California here is your prison described from what I see as a parent of one incarcerated: You lock people up taking away all opportunity for them to rehabilitate themselves unless they have the internal drive to change. The system is punishment and that is all. Is it punishment though? Except in the worst prisons you get a easy job, no training for any meaningful job when you get out. You get to go outside and play. You get to draw or color. You get to watch TV. You do not have to cook or wash you own clothes. You have no financial strain that affects many Americans right now. How stupid is your state to think this is real punishment? Don't you see that by these long sentences you are creating a dependency on the system. Only the smart and strong ones won't come back. The ones that are the most damaged have no sills after being reduced to this child like state to make it in any world except as a criminal. There is a line from punishment to dependency that you cross over and over.
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+1 # Darla 2013-01-10 22:04
Yes, you are right, and most people are too ignorant to understand or too self-centered to care. The state is setting up a nanny/prison system, whether the people are behind bars or not. One time I believe our Creator showed me that the problem with prisons are that the bars are vertical, rather than horizontal, and that a place of punishment should be offered a hand and shown how to climb out of their circumstances to better themselves. But, it doesn't make money for the system if they get better. Does it.....
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0 # linda tillman 2012-12-27 21:48
It is about time that Governor Brown did something right. We need a better system. Locking people up with no programs for rehab is stupid. We let them out and shortly after they are back in .Locking them down for months with no programs,no visits from families no recreation only breeds contempt by the inmates and families. They are locked down on every major holiday. Why? So the guards can kick back and get that good holiday pay. Change is long long overdue.
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-1 # iHateDirtBags 2012-12-30 18:11
Please tell us why they are locked down for? Why is it that you inmate lovers never put down the true reasons for such lock downs. Well heres the true reasons for lockdowns: stabbings, fights, rapes, gang activity, assaults on staff, attempted escapes, racial riots. The scum bags locked up cause their own lock downs so do tell the entire truth not just bias information
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0 # Darla 2013-01-10 22:08
How about the truth that these are incited by the guards so that they must work overtime, and get overtime pay?
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+1 # White Angel 2013-01-03 15:06
You people are so ignorant. The prison system is the way it is because of the strong prison union who gets paid by the head, so why would there ever be any motivation for rehabilitation? The more prisoners and the more prisoners who come back, the more the guards who control the drugs and incide the riots get paid. It is a very corrupt system. I believe in paying for your crimes, but it is the most filthy cesspool that I have ever seen...and the union intends to keep it that way. Rehabilitation programs? Where!
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0 # Darla 2013-01-10 22:09
Well said, White Angel
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0 # iHateDirtBags 2013-01-03 17:40
white angel, let me guess, you're the intelligent one since you think to know what's really going on in state prison right? You are spreading the same bias information that every other inmate/family member spills on a daily basis. You don't even know the truth, but yet you think you know something because a scum bag in prison that you know told you what you've spilled on this site. If you are wishing for a 5 star hotel then keep your ass out of prison and stop breaking the law. That's a plain and simple alternative to prison. So stop your [censored]ing and man up, if you break the law then expect hell when visiting prison. Rehabilitation you ask? Prison should not be a place for rehabilitation, prison should be a hard and scary place where no one wants to return.
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0 # Darla 2013-01-10 22:11
If it's not a place of rehabilitation then YOU UNION PRISON GUARDS, you tool, you owe us half of your pay back, as you are stealing from the California citizens who are forced to pay your evil paychecks. CDCR stands for California Department of Corrections and REHABILITATION. You're a tool.
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