The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday signed a sweeping prison-reform plan that adds more than 50,000 new beds to an overcrowded system, even as key lawmakers and prison experts warned that it fails to solve the most pressing long-term problems.

Lawmakers reached the $7.8 billion deal last week in the hopes of satisfying federal judges who have threatened to release inmates early if California failed to address its severe overcrowding.

Schwarzenegger said the bipartisan plan should go a long way to addressing the judges' concerns. He said the addition of 53,000 prison and county jail beds represents the biggest building commitment to California's corrections system in a generation.

andquot;This is major step forward, but now the real work begins,andquot; he said in a statement.

The governor also said the plan contains provisions that will help prisoners break a cycle that sees 70 percent of ex-convicts return to prison after committing further crimes or parole violations. California's recidivism rate, one of the highest in the nation, is one reason the prison system is chronically overcrowded.

Under the first phase of the plan, the corrections department will receive an additional $50 million to improve rehabilitation programs, drug treatment and vocational education.

Critics say the plan, as ambitious as it seems, doesn't go nearly far enough in improving education, job training and counseling for inmates who are nearing release.

The $50 million for rehabilitation programs is merely andquot;a drop in the bucket,andquot; said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, one of the Legislature's experts on corrections issues.

andquot;The bill that was passed was a prop that the governor asked for so he can walk into court and look like he's tough on crime,andquot; Romero said Thursday in a telephone interview. andquot;The bill that the Legislature sent him was a fig leaf so he doesn't walk into court naked.andquot;

Romero and other advocates of prison reform say the bill also should have addressed sentencing reform and required a review of California's convoluted criminal code.

California voters have passed several tough-on-crime initiatives in recent years without corresponding proposals on how to pay for them.

The state's inmate population has ballooned to more than 172,000, crowded into 33 prisons designed to hold about 100,000 inmates. Many of them sleep in converted gyms or hallways.

Lawyers who are suing the state and lawmakers pushing to change the sentencing laws said the plan Schwarzenegger signed into law Thursday makes no fundamental changes to California's corrections system. Instead, it authorizes one of the largest prison and jail construction booms in state history.

Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders were driven to a compromise last week by threats from three federal judges to trim prison crowding if California doesn't act on its own. Lawmakers said they wanted to avoid such a takeover by the courts, which could have included an order for thousands of inmates to be released early. Judges also could have ordered convicts held at county jails instead of being sent to prison.

One of those judges has scheduled a June hearing, during which the state's plan will be considered.

To relieve crowding in the short term, the administration hopes to ship 8,000 inmates to private prisons in other states, although that plan faces its own legal challenge.

Under the legislative compromise, the state will create a new class of smaller prisons in which inmates nearing release will learn skills and get drug and mental health treatment. Parole violators also will go to those regional prisons which the state refers to as andquot;re-entry facilitiesandquot; instead of being sent back to the state's traditional prisons.

The state will build 16,000 beds at the re-entry centers and another 16,000 in new cellblocks at existing prisons. In turn, those beds will free up space for rehabilitation programs that have been crowded out by the overflow of inmates, Corrections Secretary James Tilton said.

Additional money will add beds at county jails and at state prisons for the specific use of inmates in need of health care.

The bill Schwarzenegger signed Thursday is a key step toward California addressing myriad problems in its highly troubled prison system, the nation's largest. Lawsuits have left many of it operations including medical care, inmate mental health treatment and employee discipline under the authority of federal courts.

Hearings before three separate judges are scheduled for June. It was those approaching deadlines that prompted the governor and Legislature to act.

Their compromise comes in advance of a report due June 30, in which 17 national corrections experts are expected to recommend a massive restructuring of California's criminal justice system.

Several panel members relayed a few details of the report's contents to The Associated Press. Among them: California should find alternatives to incarceration for many parole violators and less-serious or nonviolent criminals; it needs more halfway houses and community programs; and it must start rehabilitating criminals from the moment they are convicted.

andquot;I think California will find out three, four, five years down the line that 53,000 new beds isn't the answer,andquot; said Reginald Wilkinson, a former president of the American Correctional Association and a former director of Ohio's prison system.

The new law can be a start if corrections officials follow through with their promises to emphasize rehabilitation, said Joan Petersilia, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who is co-chair of the panel.

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