Dueling prison plans: Brown vs. Steinberg

Dueling prison plans: Brown vs. Steinberg

SACRAMENTO — California continues to grapple with a 2009 federal court order requiring reductions in prison overcrowding. Two plans are before the Legislature: One by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento; the second by Gov. Jerry Brown.

On Wednesday, the Democratic majority in the Senate Budget Committee passed Steinberg’s bill, AB84. Among its features:

* Authorizes spending an additional $200 million this year on prison rehabilitation programs.

* Calls for settling the hundreds of prison inmates’ lawsuits against the state alleging inhumane prison conditions.

* Asks for a three-year extension on the federal court ordered deadline.

* Proposes the state spend $200 million a year to expand rehabilitative programs for prisoners — specifically mental health programs and drug treatment. Steinberg said his approach is aimed at reducing the high recidivism rate in California.

But Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard testified it is implausible that the federal court panel that ordered the prison inmate population cap would approve Steinberg’s proposed three-year delay. Instead, Beard said Brown’s plan would put California in a better position to deal with inmates’ attorneys, as well as the courts.

Brown plan

That Brown plan is SB105, by state Sen. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster. It calls for $315 million in spending next year to expand prison capacity. It is not advancing in the Legislature.93631_600

Brown’s plan would expand prison capacity by 12,500 beds by December. This can be achieved by:

* Expanding use of out-of-state prisons.

* Reactivating two in-state private prison contacts.

* Leasing another California facility.

However, this would also increase the number of prison guards on the state payroll. The plan has no specific detail of how many prison guards would be added to the membership of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards’ union.

Moving nearly 8,000 inmates to out-of-state and private prisons is a big change for Brown, who has been reluctant to use those less costly solutions.

Brown’s plan is backed by Democratic Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles; Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia; and Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Brea. It’s also supported by law enforcement groups and victims’ rights groups.

But the governor’s plan was rejected in a party-line vote by the Senate Budget Committee Wednesday in favor of Steinberg’s.

Rancorous debate

“The plan approved by the Senate Budget Committee is an inmate release plan by another name, totally dependent on an illusory legal settlement,” Brown said in a statement following the committee vote.

“The Senate Democrat plan before us spends hundreds of millions in additional funding to locals to improve criminal justice outcomes,” Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Redlands, said at the hearing.  “Yet I recall this very committee killed SB144 by Sen.  Cannella that would have implemented the same policy by reinvesting in savings resulting from realignment.  At the time, the Chair referred to it as a ‘budget breaker’ and said Republicans had a lot of ‘chutzpah’ for even proposing it. Now that it’s your proposal, we’re told it’s an act of genius.”

Emmerson called on committee members “to work in a bipartisan nature to craft a comprehensive approach that includes both recidivism reduction and a realistic plan for current and future prison capacity needs to provide a durable solution.”

Unfortunately, during the contentious debate throughout the four-hour hearing headed by Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, there was little bi-partisan cooperation.

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, presented four amendments to Steinberg’s bill, concerning the early release of thousands of inmates. But the amendments were rejected along party lines after rancorous procedural challenges by Leno.

Nielsen, who served on the California Board of Prison Terms from 1990 to 2007, said he was particularly concerned about allowing convicted substance abusers out of prison for merely promising to attend rehab. Nielsen asked for some kind of penalty for failing to attend drug rehabilitation.

Legislative Analyst recommendation ignored

In testimony at the committee, Drew Soderborg with Legislative Analyst’s Office warned Steinberg’s plan would cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and may not achieve a sufficient prison population reduction. He even said Steinberg’s plan could result in the early release of criminals back into California communities.

The LAO’s written report found the governor’s plan would likely result in compliance with the federal court order to reduce overcrowding in the short-term. However, “[T]he administration’s proposal to submit a plan for long-term solutions in January 2015 would leave little time for the Legislature to consider and implement any proposals before the contracts proposed by the administration would expire after June 2015.”

The report warned that Steinberg’s plan would not meet the current court-ordered prison population cap by Dec. 31, and “is unlikely to achieve such a large population reduction in 2013-14.”

The LAO also warned Steinberg’s plan could negatively impact public safety by allowing convicted prisoners to serve time in the community rather than incarcerated in prison, but largely depends on which offenders are released. Either way, the county jail population and county probation caseloads will increase in size, and would need to be offset by state funding.

According to the LAO, long-term compliance with the federal prison cap should be the goal of the Legislature. That can be achieved through lower prison admissions, reduction in length of time in prison, a reduction in parolee recidivism, contracting with other prisons and additional prison construction.

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