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Push to expand book-learning behind bars

California bill to strengthen prison education may indicate shift in focus to rehabilitation.

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Two broad American social trends of the 1990s - a get-tough approach to crime and get-better commitment to education - are colliding in California, with some possible lessons for the country as a whole.

At issue is legislation to strengthen education within California prisons, which house more inmates than any other system in the country, except Texas.

The bill's fate could be indicative of whether the politics of crime in the US is shifting back slightly toward rehabilitation, after a decade of strict emphasis on punishment.

But beyond that, the California effort will show whether a commitment to better education stops at the jail-cell door, say supporters of prison education, despite ample evidence that education increases the likelihood a prisoner will be law-abiding once out of prison.

The California reform bill must be signed or vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis by the end of the month. And while the governor has given no indication of his leaning, his reputation as an astute reader of the public mood, as well as his credentials as a crime fighter and education backer, have given his decision added weight.

"This will be a key test," says Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley, "of the zero-sum notion, which says that if you help prisoners you must be ignoring victims."

That axiom, say a number of criminologists, has been at work in the US for much of the past decade. It has led, for instance, to the removal of many programs aimed at helping prisoners, ranging from cuts in routine privileges to a paring back of general-literacy and higher-education programs in most state prison systems.

Such cuts were driven in part by a sentiment that prisoners had been coddled and that it was time to reemphasize prisons' main purpose of punishment.

Reentering society

Now, though, things are changing.

The nation's crime crackdown and increase in prison population have been going on for enough years now that the number of prisoners being released back into society is surging across the country.

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