The current prison standoff between Gov. Jerry Brown and a federal three-judge panel reflects basic contradictions. Californians want tough sentencing laws, but they don't want to pay for more prisons or even for basic constitutional health care for the prisoners it houses.
Brown has declared "victory" in reducing prison overcrowding and wants to do no more.
The judges, however, insist that overcrowding remains a problem and that the state must comply with the 2009 order to get population in the state's 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity (about 110,000 inmates) by Dec. 31.
This game of chicken, playing with public safety, is so unnecessary. Brown can, and should, 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 to negotiate a settlement.
Brown and legislators have shown that they can get things done. To their credit, they passed realignment and voters approved dedicated funding for having people convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex crimes serve their time with counties, instead of state prison. The month before realignment took effect, California's 33 state prisons had 144,000 inmates. As of June 12, that had been reduced to 119,400.
That reduction of 24,600 inmates is a significant achievement, as is construction of a new prison medical facility with 1,722 beds in Stockton scheduled to open in July.
With those two measures, the state expects to be 9,636 above the cap on Dec. 31. The governor needs to lead a frank public discussion on how the state can get to that cap in a way that is sustainable over time and preserves public safety.
To date, Brown has been simply dismissive. He submitted a plan in May, but made it clear that he did not support it. That May plan deserves a chance.
For example, the state's prison fire-camps are well below their 4,500 inmate capacity. The May plan called for adding 1,250 inmates by Dec. 31.
Another promising avenue is expanding geriatric parole. Some 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. The May plan called for paroling only 400 of these inmates by Dec. 31.
The judges also suggested that California could reach the cap by expanding earned-time credits for inmates who successfully complete education, vocational training and treatment programs. California only allows up to six weeks a year, well below the three to four months in other states.
California also has 8,560 inmates in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma prisons. But Brown lifted the decree that allowed this, so they are coming home. That step should be reconsidered.
These steps would get the state below the cap by Dec. 31. But with no indication that lawmakers would enact legislation to implement them, the judges waived laws so the state could get moving. Legislators are squawking, but nothing stops them from enacting a plan that would avoid heavy-handed judicial action.
Only if the governor and legislators fail to act do judge-ordered early releases kick in.
Then there is the matter of how to make overcrowding reductions last.
The governor and legislators need to take on sentencing reform, something the judges didn't mention. The Little Hoover Commission, which recommended sentencing reform in 1994 and 2007, has scheduled a hearing on Tuesday.
Brown issued a statement saying that he would seek a stay of the three-judge panel's order to comply with the 2009 order. Chances that the U.S. Supreme Court would grant the request are low, given that its 2011 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy said the state "shall implement the order without further delay."
Now is the time for Brown to start negotiations toward a settlement that puts the state, not federal judges, in the driver's seat on reducing prison overcrowding to 137.5 percent of design capacity.