Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders still are not facing reality about California’s prison overcrowding mess.
With a Dec. 31 federal court deadline looming to reduce population in the state’s 34 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez says the state has only two choices: Release prisoners or go along with Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to “find additional places for incarceration” both in and out of state.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg calls the Dec. 31 deadline “nearly impossible” to meet, and urges a delay.
It is as if they have run out of creative energy after implementing the bold public safety realignment that sentenced certain lower-level offenders to the counties instead of state prison starting in October 2011.
In their dueling press conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday, none of the Big Three talked about getting prison fire camps up to 4,500 inmates (much less than the 6,000 of the past). Even in this year of conflagration, the governor wants only 3,800. None talked about expanding geriatric parole among the 6,500 inmates who are 60 or older and pose little threat to public safety but cost the state a lot in health expenses. None talked about expanding earned-time credits for inmates who successfully complete education, vocational training and treatment programs.
Instead, the governor and Pérez want to send more prisoners out of state and lease private prison space.
To his credit, Steinberg has made it clear that “temporarily expanding California’s prison capacity is neither sustainable nor fiscally responsible” – a $315 million cost this year and $415 million next year. “We’re not agreeing to that plan” in the Senate, Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.
Steinberg is pushing for an intensive settlement negotiation now between the governor and the parties to end the federal case and federal court oversight. That is the right course.
But the details of a settlement matter and Steinberg’s outline need a lot of work to pass muster as the “durable remedy” he seeks to resolve prison overcrowding.
Steinberg proposes a Commission on Public Safety to make recommendations on sentencing reform to address who goes to prison, and on earned-time credits to address incentives for inmates to behave, learn skills and reduce recidivism.
But, in its current form, Steinberg’s commission would only be temporary, making recommendations to the Legislature by the end of next year. A settlement should include a sentencing commission with teeth – a permanent and independent body, as other states have.
It should be broadly representative of the criminal justice system. Virginia’s sentencing commission, for example, has 17 members. The chief justice of the state supreme court appoints the chair and six judges. The Virginia House appoints three members; the state Senate, two. The governor appoints four members, at least one a victim of crime. The final member is the state attorney general.
The Senate should hold firm on a negotiated settlement and reject the governor’s expensive, temporary incarceration solution. Having long played a role as adversary in the prison mess, now is the time for Brown to switch roles to mediator to get the state out from under the federal courts.