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Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Monday that a U.S. Supreme Court decision on prison overcrowding highlights the need for additional tax dollars to pay for inmate care.

The court upheld an earlier mandate from a three-judge panel that the state reduce its prison population by as many as 46,000 inmates. In the 5-4 decision, the court cited Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to shift lower-level offenders and parole violators to county jails as a sign "that the prison population can be reduced in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety."

The governor signed legislation last month, Assembly Bill 109, to carry out the inmate shift, but only if the state provides sufficient money to local governments. Brown and legislative Democrats want to extend higher rates on vehicle and sales taxes to pay for it.

Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said the timing of the decision was "very significant" since it comes just weeks before lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the state budget and Brown's revenue package.

"Either the court will do it or we have the opportunity to do it right," Steinberg said. "I hope, and I expect over the next couple weeks, that we will do the latter ... One of the worst things we could do would be to give sheriffs and police chiefs and local communities this responsibility, which is coming by virtue of the Supreme Court decision, and not give them the resources to be able to do their jobs."

By 2014-15, Brown's plan envisions that the state will have diverted 40,984 inmates from state prisons to local jails. That includes "lower-level" offenders and those who currently must return to prison for several months after violating parole.

His proposal would shift about $955 million in state costs during 2011-12, as well as $611 million to $762 million annually in subsequent years. All would be funded by the tax extensions over five years.

Republicans, who oppose Brown's tax plan, criticized the court's decision. They fear shifting inmates to local facilities could force an early release of dangerous individuals since many county jails are already filled beyond capacity.

"People that go to the state prison system aren't there because they stole a pack of chewing gum," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. "There are some very serious people there. What I'm concerned about is, you're turning them loose with no way of supporting themselves. We can't even find jobs now for people who haven't broken the law."

Dutton said construction has been too slow after lawmakers approved state bonds in 2007 to increase prison and jail capacity. The Supreme Court questioned whether the state could "build itself out of this crisis."

Given the court decision, Dutton suggested that California examine whether it could transfer custody of 10,000 illegal immigrant inmates into federal hands with a guarantee they would not be released early. Among those the state may transfer to counties, Dutton suggested that California focus on inmates with the least time left on their sentences, as well as conduct a risk assessment of 13,000 parole violators.

Updated at 4 p.m. to reflect updated costs of shifting inmates to counties.

PHOTO CREDIT: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, speaks at the Capitol Bureau on Jan. 20, 2011. Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee.


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