It what may not be the finest moment in the state’s history of problem solving, Governor Jerry Brown presented a self-described “ugly” plan—that he doesn’t support and the state Senate in unlikely to approve—to a federal court last week for relieving overcrowded prisons.
Brown submitted his 46-page plan to a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court “under protest,” minutes before the deadline on Thursday after being threatened with sanctions for his ongoing intransigence. The governor declared the “prison crisis is over” in January and vowed not to pour any more money down a “rat hole of incarceration.”
But he relented, and offered to come within 2,570 inmates of the court-ordered 109,500 level. He proposed that state lawmakers: let 1,250 inmates convicted of serious and violent felonies move to prison-run firefighting camps now occupied by those with lesser convictions; lease additional space in private prisons; send 8,000 felons to prisons in other states; move 1,600 inmates to leased jail cells in Alameda and Los Angeles counties; and authorize medical parole for 400 elderly and disabled inmates.
The state Senate’s leader said that probably won’t happen and political observers pronounced Brown’s plan dead on arrival.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Brown ally and fellow Democrat, expressed sympathy for the governor’s plight, but told the Sacramento Bee, “He put out these untenable choices under protest, but I'm not for that.”
Steinberg would prefer achieving stable, long-term prisoner reductions by providing more funds to rehabilitation programs that keep prisoners from going through the usual prison revolving door. “The key is to reduce recidivism, not to keep building more capacity,” he said.
Republican Senator Jim Nielsen, considered knowledgeable about prison issues by the Sacramento Bee, told the newspaper he favored abandoning the $68-billion high-speed rail project, still in its infancy, and using some of the money to build more prisons. He also wants the governor to scrap the state’s realignment program that shifts the flow of nonviolent, nonserious offenders from state prisons to already-overcrowded county jails. Realignment has been the most significant factor in reducing the prison population around 31%, from a high of 161,000.
That’s probably not happening, either.
Steinberg and Republican Assembly leader Connie Conway both support Brown’s threat to appeal the court’s order—that it lower the prison population to 137% capacity, a level that is still overcrowded but not deemed a severe threat to the mental and physical health of inmates—to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court already told the state in May 2011 that it had no choice but to do what the lower court instructed it to do.