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Jerry Brown, lawmakers reach accord in California prison crowding case

09/10/2013 12:00 AM

09/10/2013 7:49 AM

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders agreed Monday to seek more time to reduce California’s prison population, while committing hundreds of millions of dollars to ship inmates out of state and to local facilities if the request is denied.

The agreement reflects a compromise between Brown, who proposed spending $315 million this budget year on alternative lockups, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who lobbied for spending on drug and mental health treatment and rehabilitation programs instead.

In exchange for Steinberg’s conditional support for increased prison spending, the Democratic governor agreed to present federal judges with an alternative approach to relieving prison crowding, focusing on long-term diversion and recidivism-reduction programs.

If the court grants the state additional time to comply, the state would divert to a fund aimed at reducing the number of prisoners who re-offend the first $75 million it might otherwise have spent on prison housing. Half of any additional savings would go to that fund and the other half would revert back to the general fund. In addition, the bill would provide incentives to local probation departments to keep felony probationers from returning to prison.

If federal judges do not give the state beyond the end of the year to reduce overcrowding – and the administration presented no evidence to suggest they will – the governor’s original plan will stand. The administration is under court order to reduce California’s prison population by nearly 7,700 inmates by the end of the year.

“I don’t know what they’ll do, but this legislation shows the state of California is 100 percent compliant with what the court has ordered,” Brown told reporters at a news conference at the Capitol. “But it also raises the opportunity that we can, in the next few years, find reforms and changes that will make our system more balanced, more cost-effective and more humane. We need some time.”

The agreement resolves a dispute between Brown and Steinberg festering in the final days of the legislative session. The governor last month proposed spending $315 million this budget year and $415 million in each of the following two years to move inmates out of state and to other facilities in California.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it could move 5,000 or more prisoners out of state and house others at a privately owned facility in the Mojave Desert and at two community correctional facilities in Kern County.

While Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and the Republican leadership of both houses supported Brown’s plan, Steinberg balked. He proposed settling the lawsuits inmate advocates have filed against the state alleging overcrowded conditions at the prisons, asking for three more years to reduce the prison population while spending $200 million a year to expand drug treatment, mental health and rehabilitation programs for offenders.

The disagreement flared tensions at the Capitol. But Brown and lawmakers negotiated privately last week, reaching a conceptual agreement on Friday and finalizing language over the weekend.

“We all stand foursquare, I believe, behind the alternative,” Steinberg told reporters. “But we have the insurance that if the court does not modify the order, that we are protected, the public is protected, and we go with the original plan.”

The Legislature is expected to act this week on a modified version of the bill Brown first proposed in late August. The legislation will contain Brown’s plan and the alternative proposal in case the court extends the state’s deadline.

It was only last month that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an effort by Brown to delay a 2009 order that the state reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity to relieve overcrowding, and any willingness by the federal judges to give California a reprieve is uncertain.

Brown is likely to outline the alternative option in a status update filed with federal judges next week.

“I think we have a reasonable chance,” Brown said of the likelihood of the court granting an extension. “There are little smoke signals emanating from the mountain tops.”

Following the announcement of the agreement, Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in the overcrowding case, said the proposal lacks details about how the state could reduce its prison population using alternative measures, or by when.

“We don’t know what exactly they’re going to do with the money, what programs they’re going to put the money into, we don’t know when there are going to be any results, and so there’s really no way for us to gauge when the population will be reduced or if it ever will be reduced,” Specter said. “So given that lack of certainty about reducing the population to constitutional levels, we’re not inclined to view it favorably.”

Specter said federal judges “have been trying to goad the state into complying with the court order for the last several years” and that, “for them to just grant an extension without any certainty that the population would be reduced ... seems hard for me to conceive of.”

The agreement announced Monday was backed by the Senate and Assembly Republican leaders, Bob Huff and Connie Conway, respectively. Huff, of Diamond Bar, said Brown and the lawmakers “stand united in this approach, and we know California will be better for it.”

But for liberal activists who objected to Brown’s plan and proposed spending instead on diversion and rehabilitation programs, the announcement was a letdown.

“I think that it reflects the state of politics and where politics are at,” said Zachary Norris, executive director of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “I feel like it’s a punt more than a real addressing of the issues.”

Sacto 911 Staff

Bill Lindelof
blindelof@sacbee.com
@Lindelofnews

Cathy Locke
clocke@sacbee.com

Andy Furillo
Superior Court
afurillo@sacbee.com
@andyfurillo

Denny Walsh
Federal Court
dwalsh@sacbee.com

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