EDITORIAL: State prison compromise offers opportunity

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have reached a compromise on state prisons. They announced Monday that they won't immediately spend $315 million to increase prison capacity if federal judges give them another extension to reduce the prison population.

Without an extension, they intend to tell the judges, they'll have no choice but to house inmates in private out-of-state prisons and lease in-state space in private prisons.

And what would they do with an extension? They would put $75 million of the $315 million for new prison capacity in a Recidivism Reduction Fund in an attempt to get the kind of results they got from a 2009 effort, where in two years they prevented re-offenses by 9,500 felony probationers, saving the money it would have cost to send them to state prison.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg believes this is major progress -- getting the governor and the Democratic and Republican caucuses to agree that reducing the revolving door of recidivism will be the priority and that the state will not seek to expand prison capacity unless necessary.

Essentially, they are asking the court to accept the current inmate population at 146.9% of design capacity and to extend the 2009 order to get population to 137.5% of design capacity for another three years.

While this new consensus is welcome, the public should be skeptical unless the vague language is backed by concrete steps and benchmarks.

Steinberg also points to small progress in sentencing. Legislators sent a bill to the governor that would change the penalty for simple possession of drugs from a felony to a wobbler, giving prosecutors the discretion to charge possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, depending on individual circumstances. That's something, but it is yet another piecemeal fix for the state's incoherent criminal sentencing system.

That idea is not in the compromise, but Steinberg believes the Legislature is poised to take on real sentencing reform.

Whether judges will grant another extension remains to be seen. If they do, the governor and legislators will have to make good on reducing recidivism -- with hard deadlines -- a task that had been abandoned for too long in favor of prison warehousing.