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California DOC Drug Program Funds Squandered

Five California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employees, testifying under subpoena at a February 27, 2006 State Senate Government Oversight Committee hearing, revealed the use-it-or-lose-it practice of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars allotted to prisoner drug treatment programs on such items as guitars, pianos, a portable stage, plasma TVs, lavish furniture and even cars. This suspect result, which the employees were ordered to suppress, resulted from the intersection of two policies: drug treatment contractors under spending their budgets to increase profits, and zero-based budgeting, a state policy that automatically reduces a departments subsequent fiscal year funding allotment by the amount left over from the previous fiscal year.

The Senate hearings focused on why CDCR overspent its $6 billion budget by over $500 million in each of the past two years. CDCR has 34 contracts for helping prisoners beat addictions; fully 65% of California prisoners have a substance-abuse problem. State Senator Jackie Speier was incensed to learn that drug-rehab money, an investment by the Legislature to reduce recidivism and hence prison costs, was instead having the opposite effect, engendering preposterous expenses of money.

A San Francisco Chronicle investigation revealed much abuse. One program at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) spent $95,127 on the above types of questionable items in 2002-2003, while then Governor Gray Davis was making emergency cuts to school funding to stem a budget deficit.

Contractor Amity Foundation spent $500,000 on movie-making equipment in 2003-2004. That money included two $26,750 camcorders, two $22,000 accessory lenses and two $6,423 50 plasma TVs. One camera was reportedly kept at the home of the program director because there was no room at PVSP to store it. Amity also took three California parolees and six counselors to Arizona in 2000 where they repaired an air conditioner and did painting and reroofing at Amity's Tucson ranch.

Debra Olson, CDCR analyst, said she was told that if she wanted to advance in the Department, she should keep her mouth shut. She testified that one drug program contractor billed $5,000 for office supplies but refused to provide receipts. Olson was also told to discredit a University of California (Los Angeles) report suggesting that a drug program at Corcoran State Prison was ineffective, and had hired as counselors untrained former convenience store and fast food restaurant employees.

CDCR auditor Larry Cupler reported that a program designed to treat 40 prisoners was paid its full amount even though it only treated 12. Worse yet, CDCR administrators approved $1.9 million in expenses although the contractor provided no receipts.

When suspect contractor Mental Health Systems manager David Conn was called to the stand, he claimed he was having a heart attack, and left. However, Senator Speier noted that he flew back from Sacramento to San Diego later that day. When inspecting Mental Healths parolee residential rehab center in San Diego, CDCR contract analyst Carolyn Deitsch was stunned to see beautiful leather couches, mahogany desks and expensive artwork.

Parole Agent Jonathan King, previously overseeing a PVSP drug rehab program, reported that their end-of-year splurge bought guitars, a digital drum, a portable stage (that did not fit inside the program area) and a car. The car collected dust on prison grounds for over six months, King reported. They werent using it. He also reported that vacant counselor spots went unfilled and that untrained clerical staff ran therapy sessions, which included showing Hollywood movies or declaring a recreation day where prisoners played cards and dominoes.

Department administrator Jim LEtoile didnt deny telling these drug program contractors to spend all of their money at the end of the year. Speier questioned why it wasn't spent on more drug counselors instead. "You're not representing the taxpayers' interests", she protested. LEtoile remained silent.

Joe Ossman, the latest to oversee CDCRs drug rehab programs, testified that some programs were effective and spent money wisely, pointing to San Francisco-based Walden House as an example. But Mental Health Systems was heavily criticized by Speier, who noted that its largesse in furniture, cars, and musical instruments were part of $322,000 in questioned costs between 2001 and 2004.

Senator Speier also blasted Governor Schwarzenegger's failed corrections policies. He said he was going to tear up the credit card and control spending. He has failed.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle.

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