Six years ago, California lawmakers shook hands on a $7.4 billion deal to build lockups for 53,000 prisoners to reduce overcrowding that was so severe a federal judge threatened to set thousands of convicts free.
Today, just a fifth of the money has been spent, violent crime is rising in the most-populous U.S. state and Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, risks contempt charges for resisting a court order to lower inmate numbers still further.
Brown has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower court order to trim almost 10,000 from the 119,000 inmates held in the state by the end of the year. Brown says the state has already lowered the count by 43,000 since 2006, spent $1 billion on improving care and conditions, and that obeying the order would force the early release of violent criminals.
“There is no question that there were big problems in California prisons such as overcrowding, lack of health care, and lots of other problems,” Brown, 75, told reporters in January. “But after decades of work, the job is now complete. Our prisons are not overcrowded.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy is set to make the decision on whether to let the reduction proceed or put the matter on hold until the full court returns in October from its summer recess.
California’s prison system, one of the country’s largest, once locked up almost twice the number of prisoners that its 33 penitentiaries were designed to hold. The figure is now about 149 percent of capacity. Brown calls the gauge “a somewhat arbitrary figure.”
Federal judges seized control of the state’s prison health system in 2006, saying inmate care was so bad it amounted to cruel and usual punishment and violated the U.S. Constitution.
The judges cited cramped conditions where inmates were lodged in gyms and dayrooms because there weren’t enough cells. They ordered the state to cut the population to 137.5 percent of capacity.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s order to reduce inmate crowding in 2011. That year, Brown came to office, seeking a different approach from the multi-billion-dollar building program.
He pushed fellow Democrats to pass his plan known as realignment -- shifting felons convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to county jails, or to alternatives such as house arrest and electronic monitoring -- then scuttled much of what was envisioned in the 2007 prison agreement.
At the time, the Corrections Department said slashing the program would save the state $2.2 billion annually in new operating and debt-service costs.
Public interest in building new prisons and paying to operate them has waned in the six years since the spending plan was approved, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
“That was probably the high-water mark of an era, which was for voter-approved measures that kept sending more and more people to state prisons,” he said. “The solution at the time was to lock everybody up in state prison, and construction was popular. The consensus on that model has quietly evaporated.”
Brown says his approach has helped reduce the number of prison inmates, with more than half of the 43,000 decline since 2006 made in the past two years. That’s made the new prisons unnecessary, he said.
To comply with the court order, the state would have to consider early release of elderly and sick inmates, provide money to lease private prison space, continue to use out-of-state lockups and build new prisons, Brown said in May.
Those measures would come close to meeting the court’s target by year-end, state lawyers said in a court filing.
“This is a system that is delivering quality care, a constitutional level of care,” Jeffrey Beard, Brown’s prison secretary, said in May. “Any further forced reductions in our population is both unnecessary and unsafe. I’m disappointed the judges haven’t taken an in-depth look at all we’ve done.”
Twice this year, a three-judge panel has chided Brown over his resistance to reduce the population any more. In April, they said in legal filings that they had “exercised exceptional restraint” in not citing the governor for contempt of court.
Critics such as Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar seized on the concern that dangerous criminals could be freed, after Brown had refused to use a tool at hand -- the billions in bonds -- to increase the number of prison beds.
“They chose the path of realignment and when they drew a line in the sand on early release, it makes them look like the heroes,” Huff said. “But in fact, the first decision was the flawed decision.”
Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, in 2006 proposed an $11 billion bond program to build new prisons and local jails as a way to avoid a court-ordered release. Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature balked, demanding more funds for drug treatment, rehabilitation, job readiness and re-entry programs as a way to curb the number of inmates who end up back in prison.
In April 2007, after months of closed-door talks between the governor and lawmakers, they compromised to produce the plan to sell $7.4 billion of lease-revenue bonds for prison and jail construction and spend $300 million from the annual state budget to overhaul aging support infrastructure such as sewers. Another $50 million was earmarked for rehabilitation programs.
Lease-revenue bonds don’t need voter approval and require lawmakers to appropriate the funding. In the years that followed, little of the money was ever appropriated as Democrats tinkered with the proposal, lawsuits challenged the plan and the 18-month recession that began in December 2007 left the state with more than $100 billion of cumulative deficits by last year.
Brown, after taking office, abruptly canceled $4.1 billion of the building projects. Democrats also passed a budget bill that reduced the amount that could be borrowed to $3.6 billion. To date, the state has sold $1.6 billion of the bonds, according to Treasurer Bill Lockyer’s office.
“This crisis was entirely foreseeable, and the state plan to address it was disregarded by the governor and legislative Democrats,” Huff said.
Evan Westrup, a Brown spokesman, referred a request for comment on the prison issue to the Corrections Department. Jeffrey Callison, an agency spokesman, said the state is adding a $900 million prison medical and mental-health facility in Stockton, which is scheduled to open this month.
“By reducing the inmate population through realignment in partnership with law enforcement, and by enhancing medical care by making targeted investments like the building of the 1,722-bed California Health Care Facility in Stockton, the state will continue to make the case that it’s providing constitutional medical and mental health care to inmates while helping ensure that Californians are safe,” Callison said by e-mail.
The potential for the early release of inmates comes as new Federal Bureau of Investigation data show that felonies in the state are on the rise. Violent crime increased 2.9 percent last year in California cities with 100,000 residents or more. Rape rose 6 percent, while property crimes climbed almost 12 percent.
Local jails are filling up. Statewide, county lockups have been operating above rated capacity since February 2012, the Public Policy Institute of California said last year. Some counties, lacking cell space, have released prisoners early.
“He has made it very clear he doesn’t want to spend any more money on expanding capacity and it’s unfortunate,” former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, a Republican seeking to win the governor’s office in the next election, said of Brown.
“We had $7.4 billion that was passed by the legislature in 2007,” Maldonado said. “The money was there for everything to do with what the judges are asking us to do. The solution is in Governor Brown’s hands. He just doesn’t want to do it.”
Some of the bond money has been spent, with one of the projects financed being the Stockton hospital. To ease county jail crowding, the state is paying for 10,000 new local beds.
Prisons take the fourth-biggest bite of California’s budget, at $11.2 billion this fiscal year, behind schools and colleges, health and welfare, and transportation, according to the Finance Department.
“We can’t spend more and more dollars down the rat hole that is incarceration,” Brown said. “We have to spend as much as we need and no more, and I think we’ve hit that point.”
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