Brown's $315 million prison plan at odds with Senate Democrats

08/28/2013 12:00 AM

09/04/2013 8:59 AM

Gov. Jerry Brown, laboring under a federal court order to reduce California's prison population by nearly 8,000 inmates, proposed Tuesday to spend hundreds of millions of dollars housing those inmates in local lockups and out of state.

The administration estimated the cost of the plan at $315 million this budget year – just less than one-third of the state's general fund reserve – and $415 million each of the following two years.

The proposal was met immediately with resistance from liberal advocacy groups and from the Democratic leader of the Senate.

It is also a reversal for Brown, who said as recently as January that California's limited resources are better spent on education and rehabilitation and that there is "enough money in the criminal justice system."

Following a series of legal setbacks and the looming prospect of inmate releases, however, Brown said he had no better choice.

"This is the sensible, prudent way to proceed," Brown said at a news conference at the Capitol.

The Democratic governor was flanked by law enforcement officials, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, and Republican leadership from both houses.

Conspicuously absent from the stage was Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Steinberg plans to present an alternate prison proposal this morning, which his spokesman said has the support of all Democrats in the state Senate and would cost "much less" than Brown's plan.

That sets the stage for a showdown during the final two weeks of the legislative session, as lawmakers work to advance the conflicting prison plans before the Legislature adjourns on Sept. 13.

"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," Steinberg said in a prepared statement. "We must invest in a durable criminal justice strategy, which reduces both crime and prison overcrowding."

The legislative wrangling follows the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection this month of 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.

With the recent opening of the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, the Brown administration estimates it would have to reduce the prison population by about 7,760 inmates to meet the court-ordered mark.

Under Brown's proposal, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could move 5,000 or 6,000 prisoners out of state, said Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the department. Of the remaining prisoners, the majority would be housed at a privately owned facility in the Mojave Desert staffed with state employees.

The administration estimated it could house about 2,300 prisoners at the California City facility, which is owned by Corrections Corp. of America.

The arrangement would please one of Brown's prime backers, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union, which reached a tentative contract over the weekend, has suffered heavy membership losses from realignment, the 2-year-old policy that has sent more criminals to local jails and shrank the state prison population through attrition. Opening a de facto 35th adult state prison would save officers' jobs.

In addition, Beard said the department hopes to reopen two community correctional facilities in Kern County, making room for about 1,100 inmates.

The proposal is contained in a budget bill that will be taken up in an Assembly committee Thursday.

Pérez said the state's reserve funds are intended to address unanticipated costs. "We are not, any of us, willing to release an additional single prisoner," he said.

The governor's measure was praised by law enforcement officials from throughout the state and by the Senate and Assembly Republican leaders, Bob Huff and Connie Conway, respectively.

The plan's announcement followed a rally Tuesday at the Capitol by activists who said the state should spend no more on prisons.

"Money for schools and education, not for incarceration," chanted protesters representing liberal groups including the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Courage Campaign, PICO California and the ACLU.

"The governor is planning to raid the reserves to expand prisons," said Zachary Norris, executive director of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "If we are raiding the state's meager reserves to pay for prisons, we are not investing in the future of this state."

Following Brown's announcement, Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in the overcrowding case, said the proposal is "only a very short-term solution (that) doesn't address the underlying causes of the problem."

Liberal activists who oppose Brown's plan in favor of releasing inmates are now looking to Steinberg.

"We're really hoping we see a plan from the Senate that does not include expanding capacity," said Emily Harris, a coordinator with Californians United for a Responsible Budget. "There are people in our prisons that we can bring home immediately that are not a threat to public safety and we don't have to waste millions of dollars to do that."

Steinberg has said previously that he would like to address the court's population-reduction order by reducing crime through drug treatment programs, mental health care and vocational training.

At the Capitol, Brown said the administration is committed to "working on thoughtful changes over the long term" but that immediate action is necessary to avoid inmate releases.

This story has been updated from online and print versions to clarify that the state has 34 prisons now. Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Jon Ortiz of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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