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September 6, 2013
Another View: Brown's prison plan averts a crisis

CALIFORNIA_PRISON_HUNGERSTRIKE.jpg

(Sept. 6 -- By Jeffrey Beard, Special to The Bee)

In his opinion piece ("More prison beds won't make it safer for Californians," Sept. 3), San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón did get something right. Gov. Jerry Brown has always been willing to make the difficult choices necessary to address this great state's challenges.

That's precisely why, when facing a U.S. Supreme Court order to drastically reduce California's prison population, the governor championed California's Public Safety Realignment Law of 2011. Realignment is a significant reform that stops the revolving door of low-level offenders into state prison, and instead keeps those offenders in their communities and closer to their families, jobs and rehabilitation programs.

But despite realignment's resulting prison population drop of approximately 25,000 inmates, and despite the fact that California has spent more than $1 billion to upgrade health care in prisons, federal judges have said prison health care is unconstitutional and they have ordered the state to reduce capacity by nearly 8,000 inmates by Dec. 31.

The governor has made a difficult choice to address this challenge and is proposing a plan to protect public safety by immediately increasing prison capacity, while working on long-term solutions for reducing the core causes of crime.

Gascón incorrectly contends California is on track to meet the court order by the end of the year simply by reducing the prison population by 4,800. He says that can be accomplished by increasing inmates in our fire camps, increasing good time credits and releasing drug offenders. His math is wrong.

First of all, to reach the federal court's 137.5 percent cap, we must have 112,164 inmates by the end of the year. The current population in our 34 institutions is 119,837. The gap is 7,673 inmates.

Our successful fire-camp program has approximately 4,000 inmates participating and is nearly maxed out. Regarding credits, the state submitted a plan to the court to incentivize future behavior through a modest increase in prospective good time credits for nonviolent second strikers. The court instead ordered the state to give retroactive credits to serious and violent felons for past behavior. That's early release.

Finally, there are not 4,100 inmates serving time for simple drug possession, as Gascón and others contend. Under realignment, people only come to prison for drug possession if they have a serious or violent felony in their past, are a registered sex offender, or have a current serious or violent offense that is stricken or stayed.

The state is facing a crisis. Gov. Brown's plan is the only plan that avoids the early release of thousands of dangerous criminals, while giving us time to seek long-term solutions. That is why it has the support of crime victims, city and county leaders, police chiefs, sheriffs, the California District Attorneys Association and many other law enforcement officials.

Jeffrey Beard is secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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