California Eyes Leasing to Relieve Prison Problem


     SACRAMENTO (CN) – With time running out to release 10,000 prisoners from overcrowded California prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown said he will lease space in county jails and out-of-state prisons, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
     Though the Democratic governor said the legislation allocates up to $315 million for implementation, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg warned that Brown is proposing an additional $700 million on increased prison capacity.
     Steinberg, D-Sacramento, issued the statement after his noticeable absence from a Brown’s conference Tuesday, which featured Republican legislators, law enforcement, local government officials and victims’ advocates.
     Brown admitted that the legislation buys the state time to look for long-term fixes to the problem, which has dogged five governors and spanned 23 years.
     “This legislation will protect public safety and give us time to work with public officials and interested parties to make thoughtful changes in the overall criminal justice system,” Brown said.
     In June, a federal panel of judges ordered California to release 10,000 prisoners by the end of 2013 or face contempt charges. The order capped years of litigation begun by prisoners Ralph Coleman and Marciano Plata over cramped conditions and poor medical and mental health care in the state prison system.
     A three-judge panel for California’s Eastern and Northern Districts first ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity in 2009, but left state officials to come up with a specific plan. California appealed the order, arguing that the panel was convened prematurely and that the substance of the order was improper.
     Though a five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the order in 2011, Justice Antonin Scalia decried the entire proceedings as “a judicial travesty,” and Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “the Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems.”
     California has reduced its inmate population by more than 46,000 since 2006. The 2011 Prison Realignment Act, which sentences nonviolent, nonserious felons to county jails rather than state prison, accounts for more than half of that number. Still, the population remains 9,400 over the capacity mandate.
     Although state officials submitted an inmate-reduction plan in May, the panel called the plan “a plan for non-compliance.” The judges also sternly rebuked Brown for terminating his emergency powers earlier this year, proclaiming that “prison overcrowding no longer poses safety risks to prison staff or inmates, nor does it inhibit the delivery of timely and effective health care services to inmates.”
     Doing so eliminated California’s ability to ship inmates to out-of-state prisons and will actually increase the prison population by 9,500 inmates in coming years, the panel found. But the proposed legislation puts outsourcing the prison population back on the table, an idea that Republican legislators proposed earlier this year and Brown and the Democrats rejected.
     “Earlier this year, Republicans sent a letter to Gov. Brown outlining solutions to avoid the early release of criminals onto our streets,” Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare said. “I would like to thank the governor for including some of those ideas in the package he is calling for the Legislature to adopt. While today’s announcement helps address the prison crisis in the short term, there’s still more work to be done to address the challenges in the criminal justice system. We will continue to work with the governor and the speaker to find sustainable solutions that will honor the court’s demands, while keeping Californians safe.”
     Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar agreed.
     “Senate Republicans stand ready to support the governor’s proposals because we believe the safety of California families should be our first and foremost priority,” Huff said. “Our caucus introduced a number of these ideas earlier this year and we believe today’s announcement is a critical step to keep California families safe. Without immediate action, a federal judicial ruling will force the early release of tens of thousands of dangerous criminals from state prisons, and that is simply unacceptable.”
     In the short term, the legislation calls for the immediate leasing of space in out-of-state prisons, privately run facilities and county jails in California. Additionally, it suspends a planned closure of the aging California Rehabilitation Center in Southern California.
     But Assembly Speaker John Perez said that keeping the California’s prison population below federally mandated levels may require a complete overhaul of the state’s criminal justice and education systems in the long haul.
     “This process will leave no stone unturned as we investigate what can work to make improvements,” Perez said. “We will consider every option, from updating sentencing laws to giving local governments and law enforcement the necessary tools. And certainly we will examine broader policy questions that prevent crime, like improving education from preschool to higher education and on programs that break the cycle of poverty.”
     Steinberg’s statement warned that Brown’s plan had “no promise and no hope.”
     “As the population of California grows, it’s only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the Court demands mass releases again,” Steinberg said. “For every ten prisoners finishing their sentences, nearly seven of them will commit another crime after release and end up back behind bars.”
     He added: “More money for more prison cells alone is not a durable solution. It is not a fiscally responsible solution, and it is not a safe solution. We must invest in a durable criminal justice strategy, which reduces both crime and prison overcrowding.”
     Brown called the plan of the Senate Democrats irresponsible.
     “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,” he said.
     Meanwhile, Republicans hold just 30 percent of the Legislature’s 120 seats and have little pull in the statehouse – even with Brown and Perez behind the bill.
     Brown promised to have legislation in front of lawmakers before the end of the current session on Sept. 13. They will not reconvene again until Jan. 6, 2014 – six days after the federal deadline expires.

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