Assembly passes bill to avoid early inmate release in Calif.

Asks federal judges to extend the deadline for releasing thousands of inmates

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The state Assembly on Wednesday approved a compromise plan to deal with California's prison crisis by passing a bill asking federal judges to extend the deadline for releasing thousands of inmates.

The proposal includes Gov. Jerry Brown's original plan to lease cells in private prisons and county jails if the court sticks to its year-end deadline for reducing the prison population by about 9,600 inmates.

If the judges grant the extension, part of the $315 million that would be spent to rent cells in private prisons and county jails will go instead to pay for rehabilitation programs.

SB105 cleared the Assembly on a 75-0 vote Wednesday and heads to the Senate. Approval is expected because the bill has the support of Democrats, Republicans and the governor.

Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said earlier this week that they had been seeing "smoke-signals" that judges were willing to consider the state's proposal.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said Wednesday that the judges will opt to revise their order if they are honest in their assessment of improvements the state has already made to the prison system, including reducing the prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

He expressed frustration with the court order, saying the decision about how to make further population reductions was "foisted upon" lawmakers by the judges.

The legislation "gives the courts an ability to re-evaluate what many of us believe was a wrong-headed order in the first place," said Perez, who described it as a bipartisan measure.

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, described the compromise plan as "a much-needed Band-Aid," but said it wouldn't have been necessary if lawmakers had sent more prisoners to out-of-state facilities and had taken other earlier steps to respond to the three-judge panel.

He urged legislators to continue working toward a better long-term plan for the state's prison system.

"We need to challenge the governor, and I challenge this body, that we need to solve this," Donnelly said. "There's a whole lot of proposals that have been bantered around over the last few years, many of which have merit."

The federal court ordered the state to further reduce the prison population before the end of the year as part of a long-running court case aimed at improving inmate medical and mental health care. Brown is appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices recently declined to delay the deadline set by the lower court.

If the court decides to revise its order, the Brown administration would be required to report to the Legislature within 15 days on how the plan will be adjusted to comply. Administration officials also must craft a comprehensive report by January 2015 detailing long-term solutions to eliminate prison overcrowding.

Legislative leaders agreed on the compromise plan on Monday after the Senate's top Democrat had opposed the governor's plan, which relied primarily on shipping inmates to private prisons and counties that had available jail space.

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, wanted to ask the judges to delay the inmate-release deadline and spend $200 million on drug, mental health and other rehabilitation programs. He said such programs would reduce the number of parolees who re-offend and end up back in state prison.

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