LOS ANGELES — California lawmakers are wrangling over competing prison reform solutions as they try to avoid a federal court order that could unlock the prison gates for thousands of felons.
Facing the impending end of this year’s legislative session Sept. 13, leaders of the Legislature’s Republican minority are siding with Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, on a legislative proposal he unveiled on Aug. 30.
Under Brown’s plan, more inmates would be locked up in private and out-of-state prisons and county jails.
Local government officials and law enforcement officials supported the governor’s proposal; Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway stood with Brown at the announcement.
But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, was conspicuously absent.
He has introduced a vastly different solution, substituting programs designed to reduce repeat offenses for the prison capacity Brown wants to add.
The state has until Dec. 31 to hit the mark outlined by federal judges.
A three-judge federal panel has ruled that the lockups are unconstitutionally overcrowded, resulting in inadequate healthcare.
In May 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
After the Brown administration in May notified the federal court that the prison population would not be down to the court-imposed cap, the court in June ordered the administration to take measures to meet the population cap by Dec. 31. If the governor doesn’t obey the court, he faces a possible contempt citation.
To meet the prison population cap without releasing inmates early, the governor proposes to expand capacity by 12,500 by December primarily through additional contract beds.
This includes the expansion of out-of-state beds, reactivation of two in-state private facilities and leasing a private facility in California City to be staffed with state employees. The cost for 2013-14 alone would be $315 million. The governor would also keep open the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, which was scheduled to close in December 2016.
Brown’s proposal also includes submitting a long-term plan to deal with ongoing capacity problems by December 2015. The provisions in the governor’s plan would expire in June 2015.
Steinberg’s counterproposal has garnered the support of social justice groups and many liberal Democrats. His plan, unlike the governor’s, also received support from plaintiffs’ attorneys representing the prisoners who won the federal court order to reduce the prison population.
Steinberg proposes more intensive programs to reduce recidivism.
“The federal courts have put us in the untenable position of either releasing thousands of inmates from our prisons early, or putting our prison capacity on steroids by renting new prison beds at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars for years to come,” Steinberg said in a statement. “Neither option makes any sense. We can do far better, and would be wrong to give up now.”
The state has been wrestling with prison capacity issues for years. The consolidated lawsuits the state is responding to include an action first filed in 1990.
Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, brokered a deal that was supposed to solve the problem.
Assembly Bill 900 of 2007 authorized $7.4 billion of lease-revenue bonds, primarily to add additional capacity at existing state prisons.
“In the years since its enactment, many of these tools have not been utilized by the state,” legislative Republicans wrote in a letter to Brown in April.
Republicans have a theory why. “There is a large body of evidence that suggests Democrats have intentionally been dragging their feet on prison construction to set the stage for outright inmate release,” Senate GOP fiscal consultant Matt Osterli wrote in a February 2012 memo to the Senate Republican Caucus.
When Brown took office in 2011, he switched gears to back a realignment plan designed to solve prison overcrowding by moving non-violent offenders to county jails, and into programs offering other alternatives to prison. It was unsuccessful in shrinking the state’s prison population to the 137.5% of design capacity required under the federal court order.
Steinberg says his Senate plan would stop repeating the same mistakes the state has been making in managing its prison population by reducing crime through performance-based grant programs. It would provide grants to incentivize counties to expand proven rehabilitation, drug and mental health treatment programs for criminal offenders. Additionally, the state would create a sentencing commission recommend changes in California’s sentencing laws.
“We cannot build or rent our way out of overcrowded prisons,” Steinberg said.
“Circumstances have brought us to this moment, where our policy and fiscal decisions on how we manage criminal offenders will impact generations to come,” he said. “Realignment has opened the door of positive change, but if we misstep now, that door will slam closed.”
A hearing held Sept. 4 on Steinberg’s bill, Assembly Bill 84, drew 40 speakers both opposed and in support. It passed the Senate Budget Committee in an 11-4 vote, and now heads to the full Senate. It has to pass both legislative bodies by the Sept. 13 deadline.
California currently has 133,000 people in state prison, down by 45,000 since 2006 and by 25,000 since Brown took office on Nov. 2, 2010, according to the governor’s office.
A report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the Brown administration’s plan to only purchase beds through 2014-15 would result in the state surpassing the court-ordered limit by 8,800 inmates in 2015-16. The LAO’s report also said that the administration’s plan “leaves little time to implement long-term solutions” before the contracts with prisons expire.
Under the governor’s plan, the state would spend $315 million this year and $415 million in each of the next two years to expand prison space. But the LAO report also postulated that the costs estimated in the governor’s plan may be low, because they are based on the cost of housing prisoners out-of-state in years past.
The federal court wants the state to reduce the prison population by an additional 9,600. Brown’s plan, the administration said, would reduce the number housed in the state’s prisons by 12,000 leaving room for future convictions.
Supporters of both proposals believe that the state prisons have been reduced to the most hardened criminals and that it would be unsafe to release anymore to relieve prison overcrowding.
Conway opposed the realignment legislation, but supports the governor’s current proposal, said spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart.
The letter the Republicans sent to the governor says that they support contracting with out-of-state prisons, because the state didn’t build the needed infill beds at existing prisons, Lockhart said.
Conway and other Republicans support expanding prisons to deal with prison overcrowding. Lockhart said that would be the next-step.
“This is an immediate solution contracting for prison beds to meet the population cap without having to let prisoners out early,” Lockhart said.
Steinberg’s plan would not include building more prisons.
“That was what was done in the past that resulted in the current situation,” said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund.
Brown issued a statement in response to the Senate committee vote on AB 84 calling the plan “an inmate release plan by another name, totally dependent on an illusory legal settlement.”
Steinberg’s plan would earmark $200 million annually for therapy, rehab and counseling for prisoners roughly half of what the governor proposes for cell expansions. Steinberg’s plan adds huge burdens to local government, which threaten to undo the remarkable progress we’ve made in realignment, Brown said.
“I will not turn over our criminal justice system to lawyers who operate at the behest of their inmate clients, and not the people, whose interests we are sworn to uphold,” Brown said of Steinberg’s plan.
Those who spoke in opposition to Steinberg’s plan during the Senate hearing contend that AB 84 would result in the release of prisoners, because it doesn’t include a proposal for cell expansion or to contract with other states for additional beds.
“We agree with the governor that we do not want to do any early releases,” Hedlund said.
The state “is at a crucial time here, where we have an opportunity to make significant changes in our criminal justice system and in reducing recidivism,” Hedlund said.
The plaintiff’s attorneys support for Steinberg’s plan makes it more likely that the deadline set by the court could be extended beyond Dec. 31, he said.
Both sides referred to the 137.5% capacity target as an arbitrary number. Hedlund noted that the senator’s plan gets at human rights issues related to housing mentally ill people in state prisons by introducing reform efforts and funding to support them.
“We need to work out a durable solution to slow down recidivism,” Hedlund said.
Currently, 60% to 70% of prisoners released after they served their sentence are returning to prison, he said, adding that this is because there is not enough help for them to stop them from returning.
Steinberg’s proposal asks the federal judges for a three-year extension of the deadline to meet the population cap during which the state would work out a settlement agreement with the plaintiff’s attorneys.
Steinberg has said that the governor’s plan is too expensive and he won’t support it, but added in a statement that there is room for compromise.
The two sides have a week to work out their differences to pass legislation by Sept. 13.
A Conway spokeswoman said that the Assemblywoman would support an emergency session to deal with the prison overcrowding issues if consensus cannot be reached by end of the session.