Dan Walters: Is Jerry Brown's obstinancy a big hurdle in prison battle

08/30/2013 12:00 AM

08/29/2013 10:58 PM

Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate's top leader, is offering Gov. Jerry Brown a way to salvage something positive from his otherwise losing fight over prisons.

But will Brown take it? Tom Hayden, the politician/journalist who protected Brown's left flank when he was paddling his political canoe to the right three-plus decades ago, points out in a new Rolling Stone article about Brown that the governor tends to become very stubborn when he's wrong on an issue.

"He does have a problematic side," Hayden told Rolling Stone. "He's the kind of guy who, when he knows he's wrong, argues harder."

That's exactly what Brown is doing now in trashing Steinberg's creative and much less expensive alternative plan to reduce prison overcrowding in response to federal court orders.

Brown has been all over the map on the issue, but earlier this week he finally unveiled his response to the court order to reduce the state's prison population by another 10,000 inmates. He wants to spend heavily to send enough of them to local jails and private prisons, plus keep others in out-of-state prisons, to make the number. After that, he says, he would entertain reforms.

Brown has support from Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Republicans and law enforcement and local officials who see massive inmate releases as the alternative. But Steinberg, with backing from other Democratic senators, is showing that there's a third way.

The Steinberg plan would keep the 10,000 felons in prison for another three years but immediately launch a series of reforms to counter recidivism and change California's sentencing laws. And Steinberg is clearly open to compromise. The most important factor is that inmate lawyers who have sued the state and consistently won are generally supportive of Steinberg's approach, but oppose Brown's.

Were Brown to embrace some form of Steinberg's plan, the lawyers hint, they'd be willing to entertain a longer period to further drop the prison population. And if Brown and the prisoners' lawyers settled up, chances are good that the judges, including the U.S. Supreme Court, would accept their compromise.

Brown, who's now playing a losing hand both legally and politically, thus could claim at least a draw and save face. But, as Hayden says, he's stubborn about sticking with positions that are untenable, and his initial reaction to Steinberg's plan – rejecting it out of hand – indicates that he's in that mode.

"It would not be responsible to turn over California's criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people," he said.

Earth to Brown: Steinberg's plan doesn't do that, but indirectly recognizes that having whipped Brown in court, those lawyers probably must agree to any plan if it is to have a chance of judicial approval.

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

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