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September 9, 2013
Editorial: New prison deal needs to have specific language

SupremeCourtCaliforniaPrisons.jpg

(Sept. 9 -- By the Editorial Board)

While a shift to reducing recidivism is welcome, the public should be skeptical unless the vague language is backed by concrete steps and benchmarks

Gov. Jerry Brown and the four legislative leaders have reached a compromise on state prisons. They announced on Monday that they won't immediately spend $315 million to increase state prison capacity if federal judges give them yet another extension on the deadline to reduce prison population.

Give us an extension, they intend to plead to the judges, or we have no choice but to house inmates in private out-of-state prisons and lease in-state space in private prisons.

And what would they do with an extension? They would put $75 million of the $315 million for new prison capacity in a Recidivism Reduction Fund in an attempt to get the kind of results they got from a 2009 effort, where in two years they prevented re-offenses by 9,500 felony probationers, saving the money it would have cost to send them to state prison.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, believes this is major progress - getting the governor and the Democratic and Republican caucuses to agree that reducing the revolving door of recidivism will be the lead priority and that the state will not seek to expand prison capacity unless absolutely necessary.

Essentially, they are asking the court to accept the current inmate population at 146.9 percent of design capacity (119,837 inmates as of Sept. 4) and to extend the 2009 order to get population to 137.5 percent of design capacity (112,164 inmates) for another three years.

While this new consensus is welcome, the public should be skeptical unless the vague language is backed by concrete steps and benchmarks, or California will be back at this again.

Steinberg also points to small progress in sentencing. Legislators sent a bill to the governor (Senate Bill 649) that would change the penalty for simple possession of drugs from a felony to a wobbler, giving local prosecutors the discretion to charge possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, depending on individual circumstances. That's something, but it is yet another piecemeal fix for California's incoherent criminal sentencing system.

Retired Judge Ron Tochterman, a career prosecutor and Superior Court judge for 32 years, believes the governor and legislators haven't gone far enough. "Prison overcrowding is a disgrace, and it will get worse unless somebody does something," he told The Bee's editorial board on Monday.

That something is sentencing. California, Tochterman believes, needs "a wholesale overhaul of determinate sentencing." He favors an independent, permanent sentencing commission to create a framework for organizing the state's piecemeal sentencing laws.

That idea is not in the compromise, but Steinberg believes the Legislature is poised to take on real sentencing reform.

And how about significantly expanding the state's prison fire camps - say from 4,500 to 9,000? The camps not only are an essential tool in battling forest fires but a school of honest skills and work ethics. The Legislative Analyst's Office recommends that the state modify eligibility criteria - for example, the current exclusion of inmates who have more than 15 years of their sentence left to serve. Even after realignment, the state prison system has more than 30,000 low-security inmates.

Whether judges will grant another extension remains to be seen. If they do, the governor and legislators will have to make good on reducing recidivism - with hard deadlines - a task that had been abandoned for too long in favor of prison warehousing.

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