Dan Walters: California prison dilemma has it all: power politics, big money and the law

dwalters@sacbee.comJune 8, 2011 

Dan Walters

California's prison dilemma is a yeasty mélange of big money, power politics and constitutional law, and it's difficult to know where one ends and another begins, as Gov. Jerry Brown's response to last month's U.S. Supreme Court decree underscores.

The court, upholding a three-judge panel, told California that it must sharply reduce prison overcrowding. And on Tuesday, the Brown administration told the judges that the state can comply, without early releases of inmates, if legislators and voters approve the taxes that Brown has proposed to close the state's budget deficit.

Brown wants about $6 billion a year from extended sales and car tax revenue to flow to county governments, mostly to pay for shifting parolees and low-security inmates into their care and thus relieving stress on state prisons.

"We will not meet the court's order with the current structure in place," Brown's prison boss, Matthew Cate, said as the official response was filed.

The Legislature has already approved what Brown calls "realignment," but it depends on the extension of temporary taxes that are otherwise expiring. Brown wants the taxes submitted to voters, but so far he has been unable to get the Republican votes to do so.

With Tuesday's response, therefore, it appears that Brown is now using the prison crisis as the point of the budget spear, raising the specter of court-ordered inmate releases.

In fact, Cate declared that because of the court's tight time frame, the administration may begin realignment before it knows whether it has the new revenue.

Cate also said the administration wants to ship more inmates to out-of-state prisons – there are about 10,000 there now – and build new prisons for the high-security inmates who would remain in the state's system.

Oddly, however, the administration is also cancelling contracts with mini-prisons, mostly operated by local governments, that now house nearly 5,000 low-security felons.

The cancellation has touched off a furor of protests from the communities that operate the mini-prisons and their employees' unions. Critics see the move as protecting state prison jobs, and the state prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

"They are the wrong beds for us," Cate said, but added that under realignment, local sheriffs "are going to need those beds."

So what now?

The overcrowding issue now shifts back to the panel of three judges, who will decide how much slack they will give the state, if any, in reducing the number of inmates.

Meanwhile, Brown will ramp up pressure on Republicans to agree to submit the taxes to voters.

And the Legislature's dominant Democrats may bring the budget plan to the floors of both houses for test votes as a June 15 constitutional deadline for passing a budget nears.

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