Editorial: Brown needs to convene prison settlement talks

Published: Wednesday, May. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 16A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 8, 2013 - 8:25 am

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature did a heavy lift in reducing California's 33 overcrowded state prisons from 141,000 inmates to 119,000 in two years. But the effects of Brown's public safety realignment have plateaued.

The state still has 9,000 inmates to go to meet the population cap affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 – reducing prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity (110,000) and sustaining that reduction.

Unfortunately, Brown has been bellicose in saying "no more" and he intends to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, again. Appeals may delay the reckoning, as before, but are highly unlikely to end federal oversight.

All this fighting is sidetracking everybody from the real task – which should be finding common ground around durable remedies to reduce prison population. A better course would be for Brown to bring Assembly and Senate leaders, law enforcement officials, the federal health receiver and special master, the corrections secretary and Prison Law Office attorneys in the same room and hammer this out.

Further prison reductions need not be onerous, unworkable or detrimental to the public interest.

For example, to his credit, Brown says he is open to expanding prison fire camps, which are well below the 4,500 capacity. Brown wants to add 1,250 inmates by Dec. 31. He should go further. Today, inmates with serious or violent offenses are barred from fire camps, even if they are rated low risk. The Legislative Analyst's Office last year recommended changing the eligibility criteria to consider risk, looking at all 30,000 low-security inmates. The state needs more fire crews than ever.

Brown has given short shrift to expanding geriatric parole to address the rapidly aging prison population that is driving prison health costs. Many of the 6,500 inmates who are 60 or older pose little threat to public safety but cost the state a lot in health expenses. Brown believes 250 of these inmates could be paroled by Dec. 31. Legislators should change the law to expand that.

Brown also is dismissive of expanding 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. Why not increase the length of good-time credits to the national average of four to six months?

In addition, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has a proposal to address mental health and substance abuse issues that get people cycling in and out of jail and prison. And while Steinberg was early to jump on Brown's appeal bandwagon, he is open to expanding fire camps, parole for elderly inmates and earned-time credits.

The big missing piece is sentencing reform, creating a sentencing commission to create a framework for organizing the state's piecemeal sentencing laws. In states such as North Carolina and Virginia, sentencing commissions have brought longer sentences for violent offenders, tougher community punishments, more consistency and an end to prison crowding. Steinberg is strongly supportive. Brown should champion this.

Prison reform advocates say they are open to negotiating the crowding issue, though they have won most of the important court orders. Brown should take heed of this. Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, says sitting in a room together would go a long way in overcoming the balkanization and distrust that has built up.

California should build on the progress of the last two years, not stop the prison overhaul. The governor needs to get everybody to the table now and craft durable remedies that would end federal oversight of California's prisons.

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