California May Use $315 Million to Avoid Freeing Inmates

California Governor Jerry Brown says he needs $315 million from state reserves this year to meet a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding and avoid the release of thousands of violent felons.

The state would lease a private prison in the Mojave Desert from Corrections Corp. of America, refurbish shuttered lockups and pay for more cells in other states and county jails, Brown told reporters yesterday.

The announcement came three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s order to shrink California’s prison population to 137.5 percent of designed capacity by Dec. 31. Brown had asked for a delay, saying the state would be forced to release almost 10,000 serious offenders.

“In the short term, this meets the court order,” said Brown, a 75-year-old Democrat. “This is the sensible, prudent course.”

The spending would consume almost a third of the $1 billion reserve Brown and fellow Democrats built into the $96.3 billion budget passed in June.

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.

California’s prisons operated at 200 percent of capacity for more than a decade. As of Aug. 21, the system was at 143.8 percent of capacity, with 123,743 inmates, according to a Corrections and Rehabilitation Department report.

Low-Level

Twice this year, a three-judge panel has chided Brown over his resistance to reducing the population any more. In April, the judges said in legal filings that they had “exercised exceptional restraint” in not citing him for contempt of court.

California has lowered the count by 43,000 since 2006 and spent $1 billion on improving care and conditions, according to the governor’s office. Brown in 2011 won approval of a program shifting felons convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to county jails, or to alternatives such as house arrest and electronic monitoring.

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.

Under the proposal, the state would shift about 5,000 inmates to other states, joining 4,000 currently imprisoned beyond its borders. Brown previously said he wanted to bring all out-of-state inmates back to California to lower costs.

Shuttered Jails

The state also would look to reopen some shuttered local jails and use the space for state inmates. The state would staff the Mojave Desert prison it leases from Corrections Corp. of America with state prison guards, a move intended to placate the correctional officers union.

The spending would need approval by lawmakers before their scheduled adjournment on Sept. 13. Democrats control both chambers, though not all support the proposal. Standing by Brown’s side when he made the announcement were the state’s leading legislative Republicans and the Assembly Speaker, John Perez, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

Absent was Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, who has urged alternative spending on rehabilitation, drug treatment and mental health programs instead of prisons.

“The governor’s proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope,” Steinberg said in a statement. “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.”

Brown in 2011 canceled half of a $7.4 billion bond program to build lockups for 53,000 inmates that lawmakers and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved in 2007 to ease overcrowding. Brown said the additional space wasn’t needed and was the wrong approach.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael B. Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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