This week in Realignment: August 30, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

One standoff ended only to see another one begin this week.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown delivered his long-awaited plan to comply with the Three Judge Panel’s ruling that California could not skirt their mandate to reduce the state prison population by another 8,000 inmates.

Flanked by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) and a host of state and local corrections bigwigs, Gov. Brown stated that there was not a single early release candidate left in state prisons that didn’t pose a threat to the public. As such, the bulk of the 8,000 will be moved to a private facility in the Mojave Desert manned by California state employees.

This has the California Correction Peace Officers union happy as it mitigates the loss of jobs from realigning state prisoners to county jails. And the plan clearly has support from the Assembly and all walks of corrections. But one big name was missing from the all-star show of support.

“No, he does not,” was Gov. Brown’s reply when asked point blank if Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) supported the plan.

Instead, Steinberg and Senate Democrats intend to introduce their own plan which they say will accomplish the same goals for significantly less than the $315 million Gov. Brown quoted for year one of his plan (and $415 million the following two years). Calling it a “risky gamble,” Steinberg pitched his plan as one favoring structured re-entry over three years by way of rehabilitation, mental health  treatment and vocational training instead of Gov. Brown’s expansion of the status quo prison system.

“More money for more prison cells alone is not a durable solution; it is not a fiscally responsible solution; and it is not a safe solution,” Steinberg said. He even went so far as to cancel two Senate confirmations hearing for the governor’s appointees in corrections: Jay Virbel as associate director of female offender programs and Daniel Stone as director of the division of adult parole to drive his point home.

It is a tricky situation for Gov. Brown, as it always has been since the Supreme Court first said that California’s state prisons were overcrowded to inhumane levels. AB 109 allowed for the non-sexual, non-violent and non-serious offenders to be moved to county jails even though much fear was initially drummed up about the potential threats to local public safety this posed.

But two years closer to a presumed re-election bid, Gov. Brown had to weigh what would rile the public less: sending more state prisoners to the burgeoning county jails and their surrounding communities, or spending a full third of the state’s recently acquired budgetary reserve on sending them elsewhere. 

Demonstrators outside the press conference made it clear they preferred that the surplus be spent on education, according to the Sacramento Bee.’

But Gov. Brown calls this the only “sensible, prudent” way to comply with the Court in the time allotted. He claims that his administration is squarely focused on the same paths toward long term population reduction that Steinberg cites. But the time crunch itself can be called into question as the time and money spent fighting the courts could feasibly have been put toward preparation for this move instead. This would have allowed a much longer, healthier debate in both the Legislature and the court of publc opinion.

It is a quandary, to be sure. The governor’s claims of focusing on long term solutions could be further bolstered by requiring more data collection of counties and providing more impetus for them to adopt some of Steinberg’s thinking using their AB 109 funding. As it stands, they aren’t required to collect data an the can spend the money how they choose, missing the chance to sync up with other forward thinking California counties and even Attorney General Eric Holder.

It should be noted that California already approved $1.2 billion in spending for new correctional facilities, none of which have been completed. Six projects don’t even have a set completion date. More recently, another $500 million was earmarked for additional jail construction. This is on top of the $315 million that Gov. Brown introduced Tuesday.

So the tab is at $2 billion when taken all together with another $830 million in the pipeline. This doesn’t include the legal fees incurred by delaying compliance with the initial ruling by the appellate court.

The legislative session ends on September 13th. Whether this latest stand-off concludes with an agreed-upon plan in place is anyone’s guess. With this much taxpayer money at stake, Gov. Brown’s reelection bid may ultimately be defined by how this plays out.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson