Staring at a Dec. 31 federal court deadline to cut the state's inmate population in its 33 prisons by an additional 9,600 inmates, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to send them to private prisons and vacant beds in county jails.
Brown's plan would cost $315 million this year and $415 million in 2014. It is backed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Republican lawmakers and law-enforcement officials statewide.
While Brown's proposal is expensive, we believe it's the best way to deal with California's long-standing prison crisis and safeguard citizens. As the governor said on Tuesday at a news conference where he unveiled the plan: After releasing 46,000 inmates to comply with federal court orders, only the most dangerous convicts remain in state prison.
The governor's idea, however, has caused a rare rift among Democrats controlling the Capitol. Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has declared the proposal dead on arrival. He wants to seek a delay in the reduction order from the court. But a wish and two slices of bread do not make a ham sandwich.
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Police officers on the street, sheriffs responsible for county jails and residents already are dealing with the implementation of Assembly Bill 109. That law is sending persons convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, non-sex offenses to county jails instead of prison with the goals of reducing incarceration costs, and cutting recidivism rates by increasing funding for substance-abuse treatment, job training and mental health programs.
While this strategy appears sound, it's too early to tell whether AB 109 will accomplish its aims or backfire and raise crime rates.
The governor's plan buys time so that state leaders can map out a more detailed gameplan for reducing the prison population and get a clearer picture of AB 109's effectiveness.
During this time, California should form an independent sentencing commission that includes the state attorney general, judges, citizens and at least one victim of crime. The commission would be charged with making recommendations on sentences and incentives for inmates to behave such as earned-time credits for successfully completing education, vocational training and treatment programs.
The state also must get serious about expanding the inmate population at prison fire camps. Finally, more prisoners who are 60 or older and pose little threat to society should be paroled.
Steinberg rules the Senate with an iron fist and can block Brown's proposal. But it's doubtful that the Senate leader wants a federal court to decide what happens next with those 9,600 inmates, and Brown is a political pragmatist.
There is ample room for them to strike a deal that both protects public safety and provides California the time it needs to overhaul its prison and sentencing systems for the good of everyone.