EDITORIAL: Governor must convene state prison talks

It's time to solve California prison population crisis.

May 9, 2013 

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature reduced California's 33 overcrowded state prisons from 141,000 inmates to 119,000 in two years. But the effects of the public safety realignment have plateaued. The state still has 9,000 inmates to go to meet the population cap affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 -- reducing prison population to 137.5% of design capacity and sustaining that reduction.

Unfortunately, Brown has been bellicose in saying "no more" and he intends to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, again. Appeals may delay the reckoning, as before, but are highly unlikely to end federal oversight.

All this fighting is sidetracking everybody from the real task -- which should be finding common ground around durable remedies to reduce prison population. A better course would be for Brown to bring legislative leaders, law enforcement, the federal health receiver, the corrections secretary and Prison Law Office attorneys in the same room and hammer this out.

Further prison reductions need not be onerous, unworkable or detrimental to the public interest. To Brown's credit, he says he is open to expanding prison fire camps, which are well below the 4,500 capacity. Brown wants to add 1,250 inmates by Dec. 31. He should go further. Today, inmates with serious or violent offenses are barred from fire camps, even if they are rated low risk. The Legislative Analyst's Office last year recommended changing the eligibility criteria to consider risk, looking at all 30,000 low-security inmates. The state needs more fire crews than ever.

Brown has given short shrift to expanding geriatric parole to address the rapidly aging prison population that is driving prison health costs. Many of the 6,500 inmates who are 60 or older pose little threat to public safety but cost the state a lot in health expenses.

Brown also is dismissive of expanding earned-time credits for inmates who successfully complete education, vocational training and treatment programs that reduce recidivism rates. California only allows up to six weeks a year, well below other states.

The big missing piece is sentencing reform. Prison reform advocates say they are open to negotiating the crowding issue, though they have won most of the important court orders. Brown should take heed of this. Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, says sitting in a room together would go a long way in overcoming the balkanization and distrust that has built up.

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