Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California finally has a plan to cut prison costs

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 24, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

The two dominant political issues of Jerry Brown's first governorship were taxes and crime, and as a more-or-less liberal Democrat with soaring ambitions, he struggled mightily to avoid fallout from both.

While Brown opposed Proposition 13, the era's landmark anti-tax measure, he quickly embraced it after its passage in 1978, declared himself to be a "born-again tax cutter," and sponsored a hefty state income tax cut as he sought re-election to a second term.

Whether California was under siege from crime is questionable, but Republicans bludgeoned Democratic politicians as soft on crime, and Brown didn't want to be a victim.

He and legislators responded with lock-'em-up crime measures aimed at putting more felons behind bars. California's prison population, about 20,000 inmates, started climbing, and late in his governorship, Brown agreed to place a small construction bond issue on the ballot.

Not only did inmate numbers swell, but operational costs ballooned as governors and legislators provided the very powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association with generous – probably overly so – contracts, a consequence of Brown's granting full bargaining rights to public employee unions.

By the time Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, the prison population had increased eight-fold, and its costs 20-fold, becoming a major factor in the state's chronic deficits.

Despite spending countless billions on new prisons, they were so overcrowded and dysfunctional that the federal courts had seized control of prison medical care and were threatening to take over the entire system. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce the prison population by tens of thousands of inmates.

Brown and legislators responded with "realignment," which diverts lower-level felons from prison into county jails, along with the money to pay for their care and supervision.

There's been a dramatic reduction in state inmate numbers, and on Monday, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a massive plan to "to save billions of dollars, end federal court oversight and improve the prison system."

Among other things, it would cut prison construction sharply and promises to reduce prison spending – by $30 billion, it says, over the next decade.

"California is finally getting its prison costs under control and taking the necessary steps to meet federal court mandates," Brown said. "This plan cuts billions in future spending and meets the U.S. Supreme Court's order to reduce our prison population."

It sounds great, but there's a big caveat. Financing realignment depends on voter approval of Brown's ballot measure to raise taxes and guarantee funds for counties, and that's still very much up in the air.

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