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California’s Brown Lacks Funding for ‘Historic’ Prison Shift

California Governor Jerry Brown. Photographer: Ken James/Bloomberg
California Governor Jerry Brown. Photographer: Ken James/Bloomberg

May 25 (Bloomberg) -- California Governor Jerry Brown’s solution to prison overcrowding relies on ankle bracelets and other alternatives to traditional incarceration that haven’t been funded, law enforcement officials said.

Since introducing his budget in January, the 73-year-old Democrat has championed what he called a “vast and historic” realignment that would cut state spending, and inmate numbers, by handing parole violators and low-level offenders to county jailers and probation officers.

Brown’s plan was made more urgent when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 23 that the nation’s most populous state had to take 33,000 inmates out of prisons because overcrowding amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, according to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion.

“What’s going to happen to this tsunami of inmates?” Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said in a telephone interview. “Everything’s in flux.”

The governor hasn’t persuaded lawmakers to sign off on funding for the inmate shift and many county jails are already at capacity and releasing prisoners early, said Pazin.

As many as 450 prisoners with a “high risk for violence” may have been discharged due to flawed assessments under a 2009 law intended to reduce overcrowding by paroling nonviolent offenders, state Inspector General Bruce Monfross said in a report today. The Corrections and Rehabilitation Department has since revised its screening, according to the report.

District Attorney Opposes

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said the Supreme Court’s decision means “thousands of convicted felons will be on the streets with minimal supervision.”

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit Sacramento-based organization that advocates for victims rights, said prior experiments with prisoner releases and rehabilitation programs have failed.

“I don’t have any confidence these kind of reductions can be achieved,” Scheidegger said in a telephone interview. “They are going to result in increased crime.”

Brown urged lawmakers to support his plan to extend temporary tax increases to fund the prisoner shift, saying the “vast majority” of county sheriffs and probation officials believe it can be accomplished safely and efficiently.

“That’s why we need the money,” he said yesterday at a press conference in Sacramento.

The governor’s plea came the same day as state Attorney General Kamala Harris released updated figures showing the homicide rate in the state fell last year to the lowest level since 1966. Violent and property crimes also declined.

Beyond Capacity

California’s prisons have almost twice as many inmates as they are designed to accommodate, or about 175 percent of capacity, according to the corrections department.

About 55,000 inmates a year enter the prison system for violating parole in some way, typically missing alcohol counseling meetings, taking drugs or consorting with people they weren’t supposed to be with, according to Oscar Hidalgo, a department spokesman.

“We end up with prisoners serving less than four months,” Hidalgo said. “You have this incredible churn of people.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, a supporter of the governor’s realignment plan, said in a Jan. 27 interview that local authorities can reduce the average 70 percent recidivism rate through programs such as drug treatment, education and mental-health counseling.

Electronic Monitoring

Parolees also may be monitored at home with electronic ankle bracelets that reduce the need for jail space, he said.

“Correctional science has come a really long way on what works on what offenders,” said Nick Warner, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Association in Sacramento. “Unfortunately, we’re learning this at the same time budgets are going through the floor.”

County jails including those in Los Angeles and Fresno have been releasing prisoners early because of budget cuts and court orders to reduce crowding.

Scott Jones, second-in-command of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, said his department is under a federal order to release prisoners when capacity reaches 100 percent, resulting in criminals such as habitual car thieves being let out. Yet nearly half of the available floors in the jail are closed due to budget cuts, Jones said.

“We haven’t hired a deputy sheriff or correctional officer in three years,” he said. “If they send money, maybe we can hire one.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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