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  • Rich Pedroncelli / The Asssociated Press

    Sen. Darrell Steinberg used charts to contrast the cost of his plan with Gov. Jerry Brown's.

  • Sen. Darrell Steinberg rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to shift inmates to private and out-of-state prisons.

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Prison rift deepens among California Democrats

Published: Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 - 12:18 am

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg has rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to spend $315 million on more prison beds and is instead urging him to settle the lawsuit brought by inmate advocates who have convinced the courts that California's prisons are inhumanely overcrowded.

Under a counterproposal Steinberg unveiled Wednesday, California would get three more years to reduce its prison population to court-mandated levels while counties would get $200 million a year to expand drug treatment and mental health care for criminal offenders. He said his goal is to prevent crime and reduce the number of people who wind up in prison.

Steinberg's plan also calls for creating an an advisory commission to examine changing California's sentencing laws and suggests that an independent state panel should determine the appropriate population for California prisons based on incarceration models across the country.

"My colleagues and I agree with the governor that early release … is not an option. But there is a far better way than the governor's proposal," Steinberg said as he presented his plan. "Our failed system must change."

Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, called on the state and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to sign a settlement by the last day of the legislative session on Sept. 13.

Steinberg's approach deepened the rift over prisons among the top three Democrats in the Capitol as they head into the final weeks of session, a period of intense deal-making for ideas to become law. The governor and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez quickly waved off Steinberg's proposal, and the Senate said it would hold up two of Brown's prison agency nominees.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, said he is open to a settlement giving the state more time to meet the requirement to reduce the inmate population if Steinberg's proposal for a sentencing commission and funding for rehabilitation, mental health and drug treatment programs comes to pass.

Though proposals to decrease criminal sentences have failed in the past amid political concerns in the Legislature, Specter said he believes the climate has changed since his lawsuit prevailed.

"We very much support Sen. Steinberg's proposal over the governor's proposal because we think it does have a lot of the elements that have a potential to resolve the overcrowding crisis, while the governor's proposal does nothing but postpone the inevitable overcrowding (to) some time in the future," Specter said.

But he said he hasn't agreed to the three-year extension Steinberg proposed.

"All I've said is we're willing to negotiate an extension that is reasonable," Specter said.

His side has won multiple rounds of litigation that have stretched over several years examining conditions inside California prisons. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month rejected an effort by Brown to delay a 2009 order that the state reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity.

Steinberg announced his plan a day after Brown introduced legislation that would satisfy the federal court order to reduce crowding in the state's prisons by the end of this year by moving about 8,000 inmates to private and out-of-state prisons. Brown's plan has the support of Republican leaders in the Legislature, Sen. Bob Huff and Assemblywoman Connie Conway, as well as Pérez. It is also backed by law enforcement and victims rights groups.

Brown's plan, spelled out in Senate Bill 105, will be heard in an Assembly budget committee hearing today.

Steinberg's plan takes a different approach, seeking to address crowded prisons without paying for more prison space or permitting the early release of inmates. More than a dozen Democratic state senators stood behind Steinberg as he unveiled his plan, including a spectrum of liberal and moderate Democrats.

His presentation included charts contrasting the cost of his plan – $400 million over the next two years – with Brown's plan to spend $715 million during the same time period. Steinberg said his proposal to give counties grants for drug treatment and mental health care is modeled after a 2009 effort that reduced new prison admissions by more than 9,500 inmates and saved $536 million over three years.

Brown and Pérez were not persuaded, issuing statements that dismissed Steinberg's plan.

"It would not be responsible to turn over California's criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people," said Brown's statement. "My plan avoids early releases of thousands of prisoners and lays the foundation for longer-term changes, and that's why local officials and law enforcement support it."

Pérez criticized Steinberg's proposal as "kicking the can down the road" and said Brown's "is the right plan given our circumstances."

"It keeps inmates behind bars and develops long-term cost-effective solutions that protect public safety," Pérez's statement said.

The political battle heated up further as Steinberg canceled a confirmation hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon of two corrections agency officials appointed by the governor: Jay Virbel as associate director of female offender programs and Daniel Stone as director of the division of adult parole. Their terms will expire if the Senate does not confirm their positions by Sept. 13.

"Given the governor's lack of support for re-entry and reducing recidivism, the Senate thought it was appropriate to delay hearing their appointments until further discussion has taken place," said Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams. "There's a discussion that needs to be had between Senate Democrats and the governor as to his commitment to reducing California's outrageous re-offending rate."

Bill Whalen, a GOP consultant and research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said Brown's stance represents a more Republican approach to corrections. Traditionally, he said, political fights over prisons have Republicans arguing for incarceration and Democrats urging rehabilitation.

"What you see here is a clash within the Democratic Party that we haven't seen in some time," Whalen said. "The governor is talking incarceration, and Steinberg is talking rehabilitation."

Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, a vocal opponent of Brown's realignment plan who has served on the California Board of Prison Terms, called on Brown to authorize a special session for the Legislature to hammer out a prison plan.

"The Senate Democrats' prison proposal differs greatly from the Governor's plan," Nielsen said in a statement.

"It is only under an extraordinary session that lawmakers, from both houses of the Legislature, will have the time and attention to strategize on long-term solutions for a more efficient and effective prison plan."

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Laurel Rosenhall

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