California Focus: Rejected spending and the prisoner release crisis

Written by Thomas D. Elias September 04, 2013 04:20 pm

For every action, goes the law of both physics and politics, there is a reaction, a consequence.

Now it seems more and more that a decision by Gov. Jerry Brown may have led directly to new demands for convict releases he calls a public danger, demands now backed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brown’s aides say he will continue pursuing an appeal of the order by three federal judges demanding the state’s prison population be cut by at least 9,600 inmates before year’s end. The idea is to to bring prisons down to 137 percent of the system’s designed capacity. Given the glacial pace of court actions, it's almost certain some prisoners will be let go – or else Brown will be held in contempt of court, with a constitutional crisis possibly ensuing.

Brown warns that the more than 24,000-prisoner reduction already made via his “realignment” program used up much of the pool of “harmless” convicts, so cutting more inmates may lead to many new crimes.

He lays any responsibility for that at the feet of the judges, saying the state moved mountains to relieve the overcrowding top courts find unconstitutional. Yet, prisoners now bunk in jammed gymnasiums and other open spaces, lack adequate room for exercise and get inferior medical care, the judges found repeatedly.

But Brown says there’s been considerable improvement, citing the recent opening of an almost $1 billion Central Valley medical facility as one sign of progress.

Republicans respond that the state has not done nearly all it could have to solve the prison overcrowding crisis, and that Brown is largely responsible.

“This crisis was entirely foreseeable and the state plan to address it was disregarded by the governor and legislative Democrats,” state Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar told Bloomberg News.

That’s also the stance of Abel Maldonado, who makes the alleged danger from upcoming prisoner releases the centerpiece of his nascent campaign for the Republican nomination to oppose Brown next year.

The key Brown decision they point to came shortly after his most recent election in 2010, when he opted not to spend the vast majority of more than $7 billion in lease-revenue bonds for prison construction previously okayed by legislators and ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even that amount was less than the $11 billion in prison-building bonds Schwarzenegger proposed in 2006.

Brown, seeking ways to balance an out-of-control budget, took a skinflint approach, opting for the realignment program that sees many so-called “low-level” felons of a type previously sent to state prisons now staying in county jails, while some county prisoners are turned loose. Barely one-fifth of the authorized lease-revenue bond money has so far been spent.

So when Brown says he’s done everything conceivable to prevent the new prisoner release, that’s not quite so: Money was available for a 53,000-bed building program if he had wanted to do it. Realignment was cheaper.

Now, even after the nation’s highest court upheld the previous prisoner-release order, Brown Administration officials assert they don’t want to release many more inmates. They’ve had an emergency plan in place for months to some release elderly and sick convicts before their terms expire, lease private prison space, mostly in other states (there is some doubt about their authority to do this), and possibly build some prison additions. Current estimates indicate this would still mean about 1,000 early releases.

It’s an open question whether any of this would be in play if Brown had been able to show judges new prisons were coming.

What’s evident is that top judges are not buying Brown’s argument, first stated to reporters in January: “After decades of work, the job is now complete. Our prisons are not overcrowded.”

They accuse the governor of dragging his heels, saying they have repeatedly restrained themselves from citing him for contempt of court.

Something’s going to give, most likely by year’s end, and doomsayers predict a surge in crime.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Things could look very different today had Brown suppressed his well-known cheapskate tendencies and chosen to spend the money earmarked for this problem before it became a crisis.

Reach Thomas D. Elias, a long-time California political reporter: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it