Our View: Long-term plan is key to prison issue

August 6, 2013 

The expected occurred. The U.S. Supreme Court — in a 17-word, terse 6-3 ruling Friday — rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's latest attempt to stall on the 2009 order to get the populations in 33 state prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity (about 110,000 inmates) by Dec. 31.

But the Brown administration says it will continue to press full appeal of the population reduction order. Having dug a deep hole, the governor keeps digging.

Brown's secretary of corrections, Jeffrey Beard, told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board Monday that the state will comply with the population order, but that the plan is "still a work in progress" and focused only on the short-term Dec. 31 deadline — not on achieving long-term, sustainable prison population reductions. That's not a good sign.

The Brown administration apparently thought that the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011 — having people convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual crimes serve their time with the counties rather than being sentenced to state prison — alone would get California's 33 crowded state prisons from 141,000 inmates to 110,000 in two years.

The governor really did not plan for further action.

So the court's Friday ruling means a scramble is on to get from today's 119,000 inmates to 110,000 by year's end with short-term fixes — housing 8,900 California inmates in private out-of-state prisons; leasing 600 jail beds in Alameda County and 1,100 in an empty facility in Los Angeles County; reopening some of the community corrections facilities that peaked at 5,900 inmates in 2008 but were closed in 2011; expanding geriatric parole among the 6,500 inmates who are 60 or older; and expanding earned-time credits for inmates who complete education, vocational training and treatment programs.

These steps easily should get the state to less than the population cap by Dec. 31.

Beard told the editorial board that the department is not considering changing inmate eligibility to work at fire camps. But the legislative analyst's office last year recommended changing the eligibility criteria to consider risk. The prisons have 30,000 low-security inmates. As late as 1968, those convicted of murder were eligible, but now inmates with serious or violent offenses are prohibited, even if they are rated low risk.

The state not only should fill, but should expand the 4,500 fire camp spots. As late as 1992, the state had nearly 6,000 inmates in 49 camps. We need trained fire crews more than ever.

But the real task is how to make crowding reductions last. There the state essentially has two choices.

It could rejigger who goes to prison and how long they stay — as other states such as North Carolina, Virginia and 21 others have done with sentencing commissions. The aim of a sentencing commission would be to remedy the effects of "drive-by bill-of-the-week" legislation in California that has created widely varying penalties for similar crimes. Brown should make this a high priority.

Or the state could launch a prison building boom, which will have an immediate cost of construction and the long-term cost of staffing those prisons.

Let's avoid a repeat of the expensive 21-year, 22-prison building binge that began in 1984. This "if you build it, they will come" attitude, ironically, got us into the crowding mess.

For the governor and legislators, the goal in the next five months not only should be to meet the population cap by Dec. 31, but to craft a plan for sticking to it over the long term.

Court appeals, hoping for delays, amount to avoidance behavior and are not a viable criminal justice or public safety strategy.

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