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Calif. overcrowding: Where do we go from here?

Back in September, several decisions were made that will affect the course of the California prison population

The last time I wrote here, I speculated that the prison overcrowding crisis had been settled by the federal court.I expected that the Brown administration would start moving definitively, if reluctantly, to comply with the order.

Turns out I was wrong.

Governor Brown has continued to ask the court for delays, stays and modifications to the original order, which directed him to cut the prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. This order will require the formerly great state of California to release about 9,500 dangerous felons by the end of this calendar year. (The actual shortfall right now is more like 7,500 according to the department, thanks largely to the very large new prison hospital being brought on line in Stockton.)

Not surprisingly, Governor Brown thinks this forced release of criminals is a bad idea. (Maybe not for its own sake, but for the fact that it will further highlight the farce of his “realignment” program.) Governor Brown has asked the legislature for $315 million in order to rent two empty prisons and expand the inmate tourist program, which houses inmates in out-of-state contract beds at private prisons.

The situation was further muddied by the fact that Darrell Steinberg, President Pro Tem of the California Senate, does not like the governor’s plan. He believe that throwing an additional $200 million at rehabilitation programs will bring the overall prison count down in time by attrition, and wants the federal court (which has already told the governor no repeatedly) to grant the state 2-3 additional years to come into compliance. He believes, or at least says he believes, this will bring the count down. I guess Senator Steinberg thinks the force of his personality will convince the courts to reverse a decision they have already made and repeatedly ratified, all the way up to and including the U. S. Supreme Court.

On Monday, Sept. 9, a compromise was reached between Darrell Steinberg and Jerry Brown. They will go ahead with Jerry’s plan, which amounts to $315 million this year and $415 million each of the next two years, unless the courts grant a further extension of the deadline on the population cap. If that occurs, they will go with Steinberg’s plan. They may throw another $75 million at rehab in any case just to keep Steinberg happy.

Sept. 12 was the last day for the legislature to pass bills. The bill passed to the governor’s desk on Sept. 11. It is generally believed the governor will sign the bill as it gave him pretty much 100 percent of what he wanted, one way or the other. He has 30 days from the time the bill hit his desk to do so. I suspect he will act quickly to secure the beds as he wants to convince the court he is not dragging his feet if he wants a modest extension.

I can’t imagine there is a way to bring the two lease prisons on line fully by the end of the year. I don’t see any way to staff them within that period of time without going into massive overtime expenditures at other prisons from which staff would be “borrowed.”

So, the political ruling class finally acted, when their feet was held to the fire. Will this be enough to get a pass from the voters on this near-debacle (which might still come to pass)? Probably. The California voter is a feckless creature, seemingly willing to endure a massive, never ending stream of abuse from the legislature.

We may not get the government we deserve, but we certainly get the government we tolerate.

Bob Walsh worked for 24 years with the California Department of Corrections at Deuel Vocational Institution located near Tracy, California. He retired in early 2005. Since then he has been taking classes, exercising his obsolete camera equipment, rusticating and writing for the PacoVilla web site which focuses on issues within what is now called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) and within the union representing CDCr employees, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA).