Tom Meyer /

Editorial: 'Mission accomplished' on state prisons? Not quite

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Gov. Jerry Brown had his "Mission Accomplished" moment last week. He believes "victory should be declared" in the state's prison overcrowding crisis, as he told The Bee's editorial board last Wednesday.

Thirty-three prisons designed for 80,000 offenders were packed with more than 172,000 inmates in 2007. With reform policies enacted under pressure from federal courts, that dropped to 120,000 today.

Brown says that's good enough.

The problem is, the effects of Brown's realignment policy of sentencing lower-level offenders to counties have plateaued. The state doesn't expect state prison population to fall any further as a result of realignment.

Inmate numbers would also go back up because of Brown's proposal – for example, bringing back 8,900 inmates who are serving time in private out-of-state prisons. That's a shift that will please Brown's allies in the prison guards' union.

Brown has chosen in-your-face defiance of an order by the federal courts to reduce population in the 33 prisons to 110,000 within two years. That order was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last May.

Brown says he will fight the population order all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court again. Really? He would have the state take that risk again?

A wiser move would be to ask the court for more time to get down to the next level – 110,000 inmates – but over a reasonable timeframe that doesn't harm the public or counties already grappling with realignment.

Instead, Brown insists nothing more can be done. The state's proposal to the court oddly urges judges to do the dirty task of mandating early releases – an option the state so far has avoided. That undermines the good work of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown himself in addressing the prison overcrowding problem.

To sustain the progress the state has made, Brown must take on the big missing piece: Reform of the state's Penal Code. Over the years, "drive-by, bill-of-the-week" legislation has created widely varying penalties for similar crimes. Brown should champion the idea of sentencing commissions like North Carolina, Virginia and 21 other states have done.

Without a holistic revamping of the byzantine Penal Code, you can be sure that prison population will soon be back where it was in 2007.

If Brown doesn't want federal judges imposing action on the state, a reasonable goal, he should take the lead in presenting a package to legislators for the next stage of prison reform.

Credible experts say many reasonable options exist:

• Expand geriatric parole to address the rapidly aging prison population that is driving prison health costs. Currently only 30 to 50 incapacitated inmates a year get medical parole. Many of the 6,500 inmates who are 60 or older (expected to grow to 11,400 by 2018 if nothing is done) pose little threat to public safety but cost the state a lot in health expenses – and prisoners cannot get federal Medicare or Medi-Cal funding.

• Expand opportunities for earned-time credits for inmates who successfully complete education, vocational training and treatment programs that reduce recidivism rates. California only allows up to six weeks a year, well below other states. Earned time motivates offenders to behave and prepares them for life after prison. Unfortunately, education slots dropped from 38,768 in 2010 to 31,140 in 2012; substance abuse slots from 8,500 to 1,400 slots. Vocational training slots remained stuck at a low 4,800.

• Change state law so drug possession for personal use (not for sale, transport or manufacture) is a misdemeanor, not a felony requiring a state prison sentence – as 13 states and the federal government do.

• Convene a statewide panel to review "third-strikers" whose third strike was not serious or violent. With risk review to protect public safety and an assessment of realistic re-entry services, such a panel could provide consistency across the state's 58 counties, helping them expedite the resentencing process voters approved last November with Proposition 36.

• Review every life-with-parole inmate who was recommended for parole by the Board of Parole Hearings in the last 15 years but had the recommendation reversed by the governor. Of more than 3,000 parole recommendations between 1998-2011, governors reversed more than 1,500, though the parole board found them suitable for parole.

These are just a few of many options to explore.

Brown was absolutely right when he said at last Tuesday's press conference, "We can't pour more and more dollars down the rat hole of incarceration." Measures that reduce prison population save the state money – and offer the best path to get out from under the federal receivership in a way that lasts. His budget, unfortunately, plans for increased spending – from $8.9 billion this year (6.3 percent of the budget) to $11 billion next year (7.6 percent of the budget).

The job, contrary to what Brown has said, is not complete. California can do much more to assure that the right people go to state prison for the right amount of time – and sustain the progress of the last five years.

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