OUR VIEW

Editorial: Brown takes charge of prison overcrowding mess

February 13, 2014 

In a wise move, Gov. Jerry Brown no longer is defying court orders that he address the overcrowding in California’s 33 state prisons.

The governor has dropped his stance that victory should be declared now that the prison population hovers at 120,000. His insistence that nothing more can be done to reduce overcrowding is history. He is finished with endless appeals.

Brown reached a settlement with the three-judge panel, outlined in an order on Monday.

For the first time, Brown openly agreed to the idea that California’s prison system should be no more than 137.5 percent of design capacity, which would be 112,164 prisoners.

The specifics of the agreement make it clear that Brown has gotten over the notion that the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011 – whereby people convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual crimes serve their time with the counties instead of being sentenced to state prison – would get California’s prisons to the 112,164 mark.

Brown’s heavy lift in getting that law passed certainly was a turning point for the state – and led to a reduction from 144,000 prisoners to 117,600. But it is time for the next stage.

The agreement outlines specifics that will get the state to rational reductions, such as expanding geriatric parole and earned-time credits for inmates who successfully complete education, vocational training and treatment programs.

In another first, Brown has promised to address the elephant in the room: California’s broken sentencing system. The state needs a major overhaul of who goes to prison and how long they stay. As North Carolina, Virginia and 21 other states have done, Brown now will “consider the establishment” of a commission to recommend reforms of sentencing laws.

He will not pursue an end to the federal receivership of California’s prison system until “it is firmly established that compliance with the 137.5 percent design capacity benchmark is durable.”

In exchange, Brown has won an extension of the deadline to reach the 112,164 mark. Prison population must be down to 116,651 by June, to 115,427 by February 2015 and to 112,164 by February 2016. This is reasonable and, in another first, it will be enforced. If the state fails to reach these targets on time, a court-appointed officer within seven days will release prisoners, providing a strong incentive to meet the deadlines.

This is a good bargain and signals a change of attitude that will bring the prison system back under state control.

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