Jerry Brown's prison plan under fire from Republicans, Democrats alike

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Oct. 17, 2011 - 8:56 am

Inmates in orange jumpsuits trudge across the screen against an ominous soundtrack. Gov. Jerry Brown appears in hazy black-and-white footage. Later, a tattooed skinhead and some shirtless thugs loom.

"Every citizen should be preoccupied with their personal safety and the safety of their family members," warns Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, advising people to lock their doors and keep a watchful eye around cars, garages, even barns.

The Assembly GOP video could be a preview of campaign ads dogging Brown and Democrats for years to come.

Facing a federal order to relieve prison overcrowding, California began directing new inmates and parolees to counties this month as part of the budget deal enacted by Brown and Democratic lawmakers. The plan excludes those who commit sex crimes and violent acts, but critics suggest it still allows dangerous offenders to avoid prison time.

Barely off the ground, the corrections "realignment" is ripe for political opportunism in a state that embraces tough-on-crime measures.

"From the Republican perspective, I think it's something they see they can capitalize on," said Jeff Cummins, a California State University, Fresno, political science professor. "Public safety is always a concern, and Republicans have had an advantage on this issue for a long time, and they see the governor as vulnerable."

Some Democrats are also on the attack.

Nine big-city mayors, including Sacramento's Kevin Johnson, are using Brown's plan as an opportunity to ask for more funding. In a letter sent days after realignment began, they warned of a "brewing public safety crisis." Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa grabbed attention when he said his city must take 150 police officers off the streets to help supervise newly released state prisoners.

Realignment comes after crime rates have dropped the past two decades in California and across the nation. Statewide, 2010 violent crime was at its lowest rate since 1968, according to a report issued last month by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The plan will result in lower-level felons spending less time behind bars, according to Dean Misczynski, adjunct policy fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and former director of the California Research Bureau.

To accommodate additional inmates and probationers, for instance, counties may choose to place offenders on home detention or impose a 10-day "flash" incarceration for those who violate release terms. But the plan also encourages community rehabilitation that scholars consider crucial to breaking the cycle of incarceration.

California now houses 144,000 inmates in its 33 adult institutions. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that realignment will lead to 20,000 fewer inmates by next summer and 34,000 by July 2013.

"This is something we've done here and there on a smaller scale, but never with this many people and this quickly," Misczynski said. "So I would consider it a vast experiment."

Brown cites court ruling

Brown and his aides say they faced little choice after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision requiring the state to shrink its prison population. Federal judges determined that the state had provided an unconstitutional level of medical care.

"It's been laid on us by the highest court in the land," Brown said at a Capitol press conference last month. "Their decision cannot be overcome in any way by any state or even by the Congress. This is the law of the land, and we've got to carry it out."

State and local officials have long been frustrated by the constant churning of inmates. An estimated seven in 10 offenders return to prison, often for violating conditions of their parole. The realignment plan requires counties to keep those who violate release conditions.

Researchers say California prisons lack the services needed to integrate offenders into normal society, whereas counties are better suited to provide rehabilitation. Shortages of space and funding pose problems at prisons – though local leaders say they face similar challenges.

"You have to reserve judgment," said Nick Warner, lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs' Association, which supports the change and is pursuing a constitutional guarantee of state funding. "We are actively implementing the biggest criminal justice reform in history of our state. We're a week in. Anyone who tells you with certainty this is going to work or this is a failure is premature on that judgment."

Even if crime rates hold steady or drop, several people said they had little doubt critics would find one horrific crime involving a realignment-released inmate to stoke public rage. Already, Assembly Republicans have launched a "California Crime Watch" website to track news clips and individual cases.

"Things tend to get evaluated on the Willie Horton-type incident," Misczynski said, referring to the Massachusetts murderer and rapist used in campaign ads against 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. "In my view, it's not the right way to evaluate a major policy shift like this."

Counties to set own rules

But it isn't clear what basis should be used for comparing crime statistics. Brown officials and academics suggest it may be unfair to use the old system as a measuring stick because the U.S. Supreme Court has told the state that system must end. Yet that is a hard defense to convey in a campaign ad.

"You have to keep in mind, compared to what?" Misczynski said. "Compared to locking them up the way we used to? That's not an option. Compared to releasing 30,000 prisoners from state prison, just letting them out the door? Compared to building a lot of new prisons?"

California voters have been reluctant to spend more to house criminals, lawmakers have differed over whether to put more money into rehabilitation, and state officials have been hesitant to spend existing bond funds while the federal case makes its way through the courts.

But Nielsen, a former state Board of Prison Terms chairman, dismisses the Supreme Court explanation. He contends Brown should offer a different solution to federal judges overseeing the prison cases.

He also said that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers should have addressed the problem years before by building more prison space and sending more inmates out of state.

Nielsen said he does not believe rehabilitation, overseen by county probation offices, will have much effect. "No matter what you do, the majority of inmates are not going to stop being criminals," he said. "It's too ingrained in their very being, their lifestyles."

Results likely will vary across California's 58 counties, Misczynski said. Some will lean toward locking up offenders; others will rely heavily on home detention, treatment programs and probation. Many will fall in between, depending on county finances, jail space and political pressure.

In Sacramento County, a common debate is playing out. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a critic of Brown's plan, called for opening a 275-bed wing of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center south of Elk Grove at a $6 million cost. Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer wanted to delay that opening and use more money for rehabilitation. A divided advisory committee recommended Thursday that the Board of Supervisors open the jail space.

While realignment is a political vulnerability for Brown, Jones said local officials face more pressure.

"I'm bearing all the risk because these people are going to be in my community," Jones said. "It won't be the governor that's answering the residents of Carmichael and Orangevale and Fair Oaks as to why crime is going up or why I have to release inmates. The governor can wash his hands of it. But I cannot."


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