Dan Walters: Jerry Brown reaping what he sowed on prisons

08/07/2013 12:00 AM

08/07/2013 8:00 AM

The biblical injunction "as ye sow, so shall ye reap" has a political version – what goes around comes around.

Jerry Brown's career is a particularly ironic example.

During his first governorship, he was in perpetual campaign mode, reacting to exigencies of the moment with little thought to long-term consequences.

But they were waiting when he returned to office after a 28-year absence.

Brown's decision to become a "born-again tax cutter" after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 – slashing state taxes while ramping up state support of local governments and schools – created operating deficits that haunted the state for decades, culminating in a Brown-sponsored tax increase last year.

By winning approval of a major water bill without broad popular and stakeholder support, he gave opponents of the "peripheral canal" an opening to kill it with a ballot measure, thus paralyzing water policy for decades.

He's now supporting a new version of the plan that voters rejected in 1982.

Then there's the prison crisis.

As crime rates rose in the 1970s, it became a burning political issue. Brown, who faced re-election in 1978 against the state's Republican attorney general, was concerned that crime fears could bite him.

In response, Brown became a born-again crime fighter, signing lock-'em-up bills that a panicked Legislature sent to his desk.

Not surprisingly, the prisons, then holding about 20,000 felons, became crowded. Officials began clamoring for new capacity. Brown stalled but eventually agreed to place a prison bond issue on the ballot.

That began a massive construction program that added nearly two dozen prisons. Even so, as crime laws continued to proliferate, the number of inmates climbed to a peak of 170,000, and prisons became dangerously overcrowded.

Multiple lawsuits ensued. By the time Brown re- entered the office in 2011, federal courts had seized control of prison health care and were demanding an end to overcrowding.

Brown resisted, but he and the Legislature passed "realignment," under which low-level felons would be diverted into county jails and supervision rather than go to prison, thus reducing inmates via attrition.

There's been a dramatic decline in inmate load, but Brown has resisted judicial pressure – all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court – to drop the final 10,000, saying he would have to release dangerous felons.

The court denied his last-ditch appeal for relief last week. It turns out that the state does, indeed, have a plan to obey the order with few, if any, direct releases – in part by utilizing out-of-state prisons and local facilities that his administration, inexplicably, had wanted to close.

Brown is clearly trying to deflect the political onus from himself to judges. But he sowed the seeds of the prison crisis, and he is reaping its effects.

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

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