This week in Realignment: September 6, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The battle between state democrats spills over into this week as the Legislature grapples with the governor’s office on how to best relocate another 8,000 inmates from state correctional facilities.

Sending 1,250 more to fire camps takes care of some in a manner everyone agrees upon. For those not in the know, fire camps, also known as Conservation Camps, and are defined as such by the CDCR:

The primary mission of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Conservation Camp program is to provide the cooperative agencies with an able-bodied, trained work force for fire suppression and other emergencies such as floods and earthquakes. In addition, fire crews work on conservation projects on public lands and provide labor on local community services projects. The CDCR/CALFIRE annual operating budget is approximately $2.35 million per camp.

They also have no population restrictions as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, so they are always a viable option, albeit for small chunks such as the above.

Where we go beyond that as a state is still a point of heated contention.

In light of this, The Modesto Bee editorial staff actually questions why neither the Gov. Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez alliance nor Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are talking about sending even more to the camps. They suggest upping the governor’s cap of 3,800 to 4,500 and note that in prior years the population has hit 6,000.

Considering how hot September has been thus far, it’s an idea most Californians might welcome.

The Modesto Bee goes on to point out that neither faction spoke about further release among the 6,500 inmates over 60 years of age or expanding earned credits for those who complete educational or vocational programs. If you listened to Gov. Brown’s press conference last week, you probably thought not one more inmate who posed minimal threat during early release even existed.

Admittedly, their plan is a stop-gap meant to meet the fast-approaching December 31st deadline. Sen. Steinberg is correct to criticize the short-sighted nature that only relocates and does not focus whatsoever on rehabilitation, but what he is offering in return is philosophically sound yet not nearly as fleshed out.

After untold amounts of taxpayer money spent on a year of litigation Gov. Brown enacted to avoid the deadline that now looms once again, Sen. Steinberg is also right to balk at the pricetag of Gov. Brown’s plans, which will tally $730 million in its first two years. Outsourcing to private industry does not come cheap.

However, a linchpin of Steinberg’s plan is to end federal oversight and settling all of the pending lawsuits while asking for another three years to meet the court ordered reduction in population. A newly formed Commission on Public Safety would be in charge of overhauling sentencing and increasing incentives for inmates to behave and earn credits toward early release.

It’s action now versus bureaucracy and pontification, but the action is short-sighted while the bureaucracy at least has its heart in the right place. In the meantime, Sen. Steinberg has said he is open to buying more beds realizing that Dec. 31st is not far off at all.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board has also weighed in, calling Gov. Brown and Speaker Perez out for playing election year politics with their plan so they can say somewhere in their campaign that they did not release any felons early. “Brown and Democratic leaders are failing to point out that felons already leave prison in large numbers and return to their home communities in a consistent, steady flow,” the Times said. It’s a natural occurrence when sentences are up. And crime rates still dropped.


None of this is to say that an earlier return of prisoners is inherently good, especially when they have had insufficient access to treatment or training while they have been locked up and come out as dangerous as when they went in.

But early release is not the looming prison challenge that Californians must address. The state has to get better at using its prison space for the most serious criminals and at using its resources in the community to correct the behavior of offenders who are amenable to change, while protecting the population from predators. Steinberg’s plan moves California in that direction, and it has the added benefit of blocking early releases. Brown’s sacrifices smart planning and millions of dollars in resources in the name of delaying for a short period a few inmate releases that in the end pose a far smaller problem than he lets on.

And this is where the Times says it better than anyone else thus far. If Sen. Steinberg can get some more meat on his plan in time to address both the deadline and the gaps he rightly points out in Gov. Brown’s plan, there may be hope yet that the above comes to fruition.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson