Gov. Brown wants the Supreme Court out of California prisons

150 150 Christopher Nelson

What type of offender occupies these beds should be the state’s focus (Photo: Flickr/Brian Gosline)

Gov. Jerry Brown recently made a bold yet calculated play  to challenge the Federal Court’s continued jurisdiction over the California prison system as part of a ruling that mandated a reduction in the state prison population.

Health care has been an issue in prisons for many years now and overcrowding was identified by the Court as the major factor in what Plantiffs’ and the 3 Judge Panel perceive as the continued inadequacy of health care.   

After moving 33,000 non-violent offenders from state to county jurisdiction in a span of time that is practically overnight for a glacial state bureaucracy, Gov. Brown exclaimed this week that prisoners are now getting the best care they have ever received, far better than many law-abiding citizens, all on John Q. Taxpayer’s dime.

It’s not a matter of savings in the short-run, however, as a serious dispute with a federal court(s) would cost a pretty penny as well. The central question we must be asking is whether or not this gambit is premature given what we don’t know about who is currently occupying those 110,000 state prison beds? Those beds are limited and costly and every effort must be made to ensure the right people are in them.

On the surface, Gov. Brown’s actions appear to be a common sense plea from the governor of a cash-strapped state. Between the false specter of realignment actually increasing violent crime (in the limited data available thus far, it hasn’t) and the notion of putting citizens before criminals, Gov. Brown’s actions have certainly generated a lot of buzz in the past 24 hours.

It would be an easy plea to support if it were actually this black and white.

But with a further reduction of up to 8,000 beds looming under the mandate, this is also a shrewd chess move to delay that end-of-year deadline and turn the conversation back to whether we should be doing this at all. The ensuing legal battle would be prolonged, simultaneously buying time to meet requirements and shooting a hole in the notion of savings given the legal costs involved with such a maneuver.

Furthermore, the Governor has a long to-do list and even suggesting the early release of offenders to meet the next reduction threshold would not bode well with a public he needs to keep on his side. With a new Corrections Secretary still getting his bearings, it’s easy to see why the delay is Gov. Brown’s best option.

Yet, Gov. Brown and all of those involved in realignment thus far deserve credit for the speed with which they worked toward the 110,000 bed cap at the state level and attacked the sub-standard health care in prison systems.

All that remains is performing the due diligence to verify that the right people are in those beds.

The thinking is this: given the limited number of beds, state prisons should only be housing violent offenders and/or those who pose the greatest risk of re-offending. Analysis of existing prisoners including their charges, sentence and risk level would need to happen so determinations can be made about who else, if anyone, should be remitted to county jurisdiction.

Gov. Brown may actually have this data at his disposal and be satisfied with who is occupying the expensive beds in California’s state prisons. He just hasn’t let on as much if he does.

If he does not, then the time he has bought certainly allows for such an analysis to be done, and doing so is paramount to the long-term success of the state’s entire corrections system.

But if the data exists and the people in those beds are the right people, then a challenge to the Supreme Court is certainly in order, despite the fact that many in Corrections circles believe he won’t win.

We just think it’s wise to withhold judgment either way on what is a savvy political move before actually seeing the substance behind it all.


Christopher Nelson

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