Under threat of contempt of court, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a plan to ease prison crowding by releasing certain inmates early, sending others to county jails and relocating some to state fire camps — but added that he doesn’t support it.
Although the plan would remove thousands of inmates from California’s packed prisons, it would not meet court requirements to lower the population by more than 9,000. The jurists could order more inmates freed if they find the governor’s plan unacceptable.
Brown said in court filings that he would ask lawmakers to permit the release hundreds of “low-risk” prisoners who are elderly or medically frail, along with offenders who earn credit for good conduct. He would also put thousands of inmates in camps dedicated to conservation work and fighting wildfires, in empty county beds and in a new prison set to open this summer.
It was unclear Friday whether the Legislature would agree. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called prospects for the plan “dubious” and questioned the wisdom of spending public dollars on more prison beds rather than rehabilitation efforts.
The filings, submitted just before a midnight deadline Thursday, made clear that even Brown has little taste for his own recommendations. The governor, contending that the inmate count has already been sufficiently lowered and he needs to do nothing more, will take the “unusual step” of drafting legislation he does not want, the documents say.
On Friday, his administration was campaigning against its own proposal.
“The plan is ugly,” prisons chief Jeffrey Beard, whom Brown appointed, told reporters. “We don’t like it. But … it’s the best plan we could come up with.”
Beard said the judges are fixated on an arbitrary number, ignoring improvements in prison conditions since court intervention began more than a decade ago.
“The state has transformed the prison healthcare system into one of the best in the nation,” Beard said. “This is about more than a number. The case is too important to the people of California, to the safety of our neighborhoods.”
Beard acknowledged that the state’s plan fails to meet the federal population target by about 2,570 inmates. Asked if state officials could avoid being held in contempt, Beard replied, “I certainly hope so,” adding, “We can’t do any more without creating problems.”
Prisoners’ lawyers said the governor offers too little, too late.
“There is no reason they can’t comply to the letter of the order in the extended time frame they have been given,” said Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office, lead plaintiff in the 12-year-old court case that triggered the federal population caps four years ago. “They have to stop their political posturing and need to knuckle down.”
Evenson contended that California prisons are “bloated” with low-risk inmates who can and should go free.
In addition to freeing 650 prisoners who are elderly, frail or earn good-conduct credits, Brown’s plan calls for moving 1,700 others to the new prison and 1,300 to fire camps. The state would also lease 1,600 cells from county jails. Separately, the administration is already negotiating space for 1,200 additional inmates in various local facilities, some of them privately owned.
Beard said the state also is considering leasing private prisons and staffing those facilities with state corrections officers, but he provided no numbers.
Beard noted that counties have been struggling with bursting jails since Brown’s 2011 directive that many low-level offenders remain in local custody rather than be sent to state prisons. County officials throughout California complain they cannot hold enough criminals, such as sex offenders who violate parole.
The Thursday filings note that an added burden on counties might increase pressure on judges to release inmates from local jails. But the documents say empty beds in Los Angeles and Alameda counties could hold state inmates.
Paige St. John
Los Angeles Times