Dan Walters: New moves in California's old penal game

08/28/2013 12:00 AM

08/28/2013 10:57 AM

Eight months ago, while asking federal judges to modify an order to reduce overcrowding in the state's prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown uttered these words: "We can't pour more and more money down the rat hole of incarceration. We have to spend as much as we need, but no more, and I think we've hit that point."

Never mind.

With the courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court – insisting on dropping the inmate population by another 10,000 inmates, Brown on Tuesday said he wants to spend even more money on incarceration – down the rat hole, so to speak – to avoid releasing felons he said could threaten the public.

"This is the best we can do under the circumstances," said Brown, flanked by legislators and law enforcement and local government officials. "This gives us some breathing room."

Brown has the support of Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, as well as Republican legislators, for his plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to shift inmates from the prison system into other forms of custody, rather than release them.

But that puts him at odds with a coalition of prisoner rights groups that had supported an earlier reduction plan that would have released many of the 10,000 felons at issue. And it alienates Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the state Senate, who wants money for mental health programs as an alternative to prison, as well as other liberal legislators.

"The governor's proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope," Steinberg said in a statement. "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."

With the legislative session winding up, it sets the stage for a high-stakes political battle. The Senate is not only a more liberal house than the Assembly, but more independent as well, and Steinberg is not alone in opposing the plan.

However, were Brown to agree to spend even more money on mental health services, as Steinberg wants, and follow through on promises for long-term penal reform, a deal might be made.

The unveiling of Brown's prison plan is the latest chapter in a political debate over how tough California's sentencing laws should be that began during his first governorship more than three decades ago – but one that has heightened with federal judicial pressure to relieve overcrowding.

The steps that the governor outlined Tuesday reverse what was his administration's policy just months ago, when it sought to remove California inmates from out-of-state prisons, end the use of private prisons and shut down community-operated mini-prisons.

In that sense, it's emblematic of what's been happening for decades – abrupt changes in criminal justice policy sparked by shifts in the political winds.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/ walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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