Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce prison overcrowding may satisfy a looming federal deadline but it does not represent a durable long-term solution, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
In a victory for the Brown administration, the federal panel adjudicating the struggle over California's prison overcrowdingrecently gave the state two more years to reduce its population to constitutional levels.
While the LAO concludes that California is on pace to slip under the federal cap, the nonpartisan analyst faulted Brown's plan for relying too much on the use of county jails and private prisons. Brown's budget would spend $481 million to place just under 17,000 inmates in so-called contract beds .
A strategy combining contract beds with other changes, such as increasing good time credits and expanding parole for the elderly, inmates with serious medical conditions and second-strikers, will likely get California under a federally-mandated cap by the new 2016 deadline, the LAO found.
But the state's prison population is projected to climb again in subsequent years. Relying on contract beds will also place a costly burden on the state, the LAO argues, to the tune of about $500 million annually.
"The plan contains relatively few measures that would help the state maintain long-term compliance other than relying indefinitely on costly contract beds," the report concludes.
Given those risks, the LAO urged the Legislature to craft some longer-term policy solutions. Its recommendations include reducing certain sentences and converting some crimes to "wobblers" that can be charged either as misdemeanors or felonies -- an approach Brown vetoed last year - allowing inmates to earn more early release credits for good behavior, and expanding programs that allow adult men to serve part of their sentences outside of state prison.
The two-year extension, granted earlier this month, came after the governor secured legislative approval last year of his package allocating $315 million to house excess inmates.
But because California received the two-year extension, Brown's budget proposes taking some of the money approved last year to house more inmates and depositing it instead into a Recidivism Reduction Fund.
Specifically, Brown's budget also proposes channeling just under $50 million from the recidivism fund into re-entry hubs and around $30 million on substance abuse, rehabilitation and mental illness programs.
That infusion might help for the coming budget year, but it will quickly exhaust the recidivism fund, the LAO said. To sustain the types of programs Brown proposes funding, the Legislature would need to continue dipping into the General Fund on an annual basis.
"The Governor's budget proposals create or expand programs that would require ongoing funding to effectively reduce the prison population," the LAO report estimates.
The LAO also rejected both the governor's plan to fund re-entry hubs, which use education and treatment to prepare inmates nearing the end of their terms to reintegrate into society. The report cast doubt on whether re-entry hubs effectively reduce recidivism.
Similarly, the report urged the governor to discard his plan to spend $11.3 million on integrated drug treatment, calling the program unproven and overly costly.
Instead, the LAO recommends diverting the $60 million set aside for those two programs towards an initiative rewarding counties that keep paroled felons from returning to state prisons.
PHOTO: Inmates inside the jail cells in the old Stanislaus County downtown main jail in Modesto on Wednesday June 19, 2013.The Sacramento Bee/Manny Crisostomo.