Finish reducing California's prison population


June 28, 2013 

California Prisons

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2012 file photo, inmates walk around a recreation yard at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. A panel of federal judges on Thursday, June 20, 2103, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce inmate population because it fell short of the court-ordered cap by 2,300 inmates. The judges ordered Brown to take additional steps to reduce the population to 110,000 inmates by the end of the year.(AP Photo/ Rich Pedroncelli,file)


The current prison standoff between Gov. Jerry Brown and a federal three-judge panel reflects basic contradictions. Californians want tough sentencing laws, but they don't want to pay for more prisons or even for basic constitutional health care for the prisoners that the state houses.

Brown has declared "victory" in reducing prison overcrowding and wants to do no more. The judges, however, insist that overcrowding remains a problem and that the state must comply with the 2009 order to get population in the state's 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity (about 110,000 inmates) by Dec. 31.

This game of chicken, playing with public safety, is so unnecessary. Brown can, and should, bring Assembly and Senate leaders, law enforcement officials, the federal health receiver and special master, the corrections secretary and Prison Law Office attorneys into the same room to negotiate a settlement.

Brown and legislators have shown that they can get things done. To their credit, they passed realignment and voters approved dedicated funding for it. The month before realignment took effect, California's 33 state prisons had 148,000 inmates. As of June 12, that number had been reduced to 123,400.

That reduction of 24,600 inmates is a significant achievement, as is construction of a new prison medical facility with 1,722 beds in Stockton scheduled to open in July.

The state expects to be 9,636 above the cap on Dec. 31. The governor needs to lead a frank public discussion on how the state can get to that cap in a way that is sustainable over time and preserves public safety.

To date, Brown has been simply dismissive. He submitted a plan in May, but made it clear that he did not support it. That May plan deserves a chance.

Steps outlined in the plan would get the state below the cap by Dec. 31. But with no indication that lawmakers would enact legislation to implement them, the judges waived laws so the state could get moving. Legislators are squawking, but nothing stops them from enacting a plan that would avoid heavy-handed judicial action. Only if the governor and legislators fail to act do judge-ordered early releases kick in.

Then there is the matter of how to make overcrowding reductions last.

The governor and legislators need to take on sentencing reform, something the judges didn't mention. The Little Hoover Commission, which recommended sentencing reform in 1994 and 2007, has scheduled a hearing on Tuesday.

Brown issued a statement saying he would seek a stay of the three-judge panel's order to comply with the 2009 order. Chances that the U.S. Supreme Court would grant the request are low, given that its 2011 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy said the state "shall implement the order without further delay."

Now is the time for Brown to start negotiations toward a settlement that puts the state, not federal judges, in the driver's seat on reducing prison overcrowding to 137.5 percent of design capacity.

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