Under court order to reduce California's prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of the year, Gov. Jerry Brown asked the Legislature this afternoon to authorize about $315 million to avoid a mass release.
Legislation proposed by the Democratic governor would ease overcrowding in the short term and and "make thoughtful changes over the longer term," Brown said. "This is the sensible, prudent way to proceed."
The bill would allow the state to lease more private prison space and send more prisoners to out of state facilities.
The bill's prospects are far from certain. While Brown was joined by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, and Republican leadership from both houses for the announcement, noticeably absent was Darrell Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem.
Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has suggested the state should put more emphasis on mental health and drug treatment programs than on expanding jail capacity.
He issued a statement after Brown's announcement:
"The Governor's proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope. As the population of California grows, it's only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the Court demands mass releases again. For every ten prisoners finishing their sentences, nearly seven of them will commit another crime after release and end up back behind bars.
"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."
The proposed legislation follows the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection this month of a request by the Brown administration to delay a federal order to reduce its prison population to ease overcrowding. Brown and lawmakers have been in talks since the ruling came down.
Steinberg was asked last week about the prospect of spending additional money to house more inmates. At the time, he said, "And my response is there are two paths. One is to expend money to expand jail capacity with no impact on long-term population. The second path is to take those resources and instead invest them in mental health courts, drug treatment, mental health treatment, vocational rehabilitation, evidence-based programs, and seek to reduce the population in a more sustained way. And in a way that shifts the criminal justice debate to a smart on crime discussion."
Part of the legislation involves leasing a privately-owned facility in the Mojave Desert and staffing it with state employees. The bill would authorize funds to send prisoners to Corrections Corp. of America's 1,200-cell facility in California City, but run it like a state-owned prison. Since each cell is designed for two inmates, the move would add up to 2,400 beds.
The arrangement to use a private prison staffed with state workers would do more than ease prison overcrowding. It would also please one of Brown's prime backers, The California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
The union, which reached a tentative contract over the weekend, has suffered heavy membership losses from realignment, the two-year-old policy that has sent more criminals to local jails and shrunken the state prison population through attrition. Opening a de facto 34th adult state prison would save officers' jobs.
Jon Ortiz contributed to this report