Gov. Jerry Brown’s gambit to reduce prison overcrowding by relying solely on more prison capacity has failed. It is time for the governor to abandon his defiance strategy and negotiate a settlement that will end the legal cat-and-mouse over state corrections.
In a Sept. 16 court filing, Brown made it clear that the only way he wants to comply with a court order to reduce prison population is to lease space in private prisons, within California and out-of-state, and in county jails. He told the court he would begin sending additional prisoners to out-of-state facilities on Sept. 30.
The three-judge panel wasn’t buying. They ordered the state on Tuesday to “meet-and-confer” to consider other alternatives to meet the Dec. 31 deadline – which they extended by the four weeks needed for negotiations, to Jan. 27. They said the state “shall not enter into any contracts or other arrangements to lease additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or otherwise increase the number of inmates who are housed in out-of-state facilities.”
In the short term, they want the governor to “expedite” several short-term solutions, all of which make good sense to close the 8,000-prisoner gap, getting prison population down to 112,164:
• Accelerate hearings for “three-strikers,” under voter-approved Proposition 36, whose third strike was not serious or violent. This is currently backlogged in the court system. This could take care of 1,500 to 1,600 prison beds, above the 1,000 in cases that have already had hearings.
• Accelerate implementation of newly passed Senate Bill 260, which requires the Board of Parole Hearings to hold a hearing by July 2015 for those who have served more than 15 years for an offense committed when they were juveniles. That could free up perhaps 1,000 prison beds.
• Accelerate geriatric parole for the elderly and the medically infirm. Review the risks of the 900 prisoners who qualify medically.
• Work with the federal government to reduce the number of foreign-born prisoners on hold in state prison for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
• Expand credits awarded for good behavior.
All those measures would get the state close. Brown should make them happen. The judges are giving him and the other parties until Oct. 21 to come up with “means and dates by which such compliance can be expedited or accomplished.”
But Gov. Brown has yet to answer the long-term question: What’s the end-game? If he agrees to accelerate implementation of the above items, these are still one-time options. California still has a long-term structural imbalance between the number of prisoners going in and prison capacity.
We still have too many being sent to prison for too long a time. Without some kind of permanent reform of our sentencing laws, we will have the same overcrowding problem every five to seven years. The judges also reminded state officials that they must present a “durable solution to the prison crowding problem” by Oct. 21, other than building more prisons and hiring more guards.
Brown clearly is looking over his shoulder to the 2014 elections, where he doesn’t want to appear “soft on crime.” But the judges have made it clear they want to see him settle. The governor would be ill-advised to defy them again.