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 unusual 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.

Low-Level

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.

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 out 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.

Bond Program

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.

Under the proposal, the state would postpone returning about 4,000 inmates currently held in other states and ship out another 5,000. Brown previously said he wanted to bring all out-of-state inmates back to California to lower costs.

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.

Not Unanimous

The spending would need approval by lawmakers before their scheduled adjournment on Sept. 13. Though Democrats control both chambers, 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.

Steinberg and Senate Democrats proposed their own plan, calling for $200 million in grants for counties to expand rehabilitation, drug and mental-health treatment programs that they said would reduce recidivism. The state also would set up an advisory commission to look at sentencing changes.

“We cannot build or rent our way out of overcrowded prisons,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said he would ask the plaintiffs that brought the civil lawsuit against the state that led to the federal takeover to agree to a three-year extension of the court-ordered deadline. Federal judges would need to approve the extension.

Donald Spector of the Prison Law Office, attorney for the inmate plaintiff in the case, said in a statement that he is open to an extension.

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