BY DON THOMPSON Associated Press
SACRAMENTO -- In a direct slap to Gov. Jerry Brown, his Democratic allies in the state Senate on Wednesday rejected his plan for dealing with California's prison crisis, throwing the state's response to a federal court order into chaos.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told reporters gathered at a Capitol news conference that the proposal Brown announced a day earlier was essentially dead on arrival and that his chamber would not pass it.
"We oppose the governor's plan," Steinberg said. "We think it is, as the governor himself said ... 'It's throwing money down a rat hole.'"
Brown quickly dismissed the proposal. He said in a statement that it would be irresponsible to leave the state's criminal justice policy in the hands of the private attorneys suing the state on behalf of inmates.
On Tuesday, Brown presented his plan for addressing a federal court order that says the state must lower its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates by the end of the year. Judges have determined that a lower prison population is the best way to improve inmate medical and mental health care, which is at the heart of a long-running legal battle.
The governor wants to move inmates to private prisons and vacant county jail cells at an estimated cost of $730 million over two years. His proposal has the support of statewide law enforcement and crime victims groups, but the spending requires legislative approval.
The Democratic Assembly speaker is on board, but the Democrats who control the Senate are not. They are rejecting both the early release of inmates and spending any more money to house prisoners elsewhere.
"I know we are not going to do what was proposed yesterday," Steinberg said. "It's not smart."
Instead, he wants a three-year extension of the year-end deadline set by the federal courts.
That grace period would be designed to give local rehabilitation and drug and mental health treatment programs time to work. Steinberg said such programs, if properly implemented, will lower the crime rate and, by extension, send fewer people to prison.
He said that is part of a long-term and "durable" solution to lower the state's inmate population. In addition, Steinberg said he wants to establish an independent commission to determine the proper population level of California's 33 adult prisons, even though the federal courts have already done that and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld it.
Steinberg's office said his plan has the support of all 27 Democrats in the Senate.
His request for a delay in the inmate-reduction order is supported by the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuits over inmate medical and mental health care.
"Senator Steinberg's substantive proposals are acceptable to us and we are open to an extension of the date for compliance with the three judge court's order if an agreement produces an effective and sustainable approach that will resolve the chronic overcrowding problem in the state's prisons," Donald Specter of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office said in a statement.
He said the actual length of the delay will have to be negotiated.
Joyce Hayhoe, spokeswoman for the court-appointed authority who oversees prison medical care, said the office would not comment on the dueling proposals.
The rejection of Brown's plan and the emergence of an alternate one is creating great uncertainty about the status of the court order and the state's ability to meet it. Lawmakers end this year's session on Sept. 13, providing a narrow legislative window to craft a compromise.
It's not yet clear whether the panel of three federal judges will entertain any solution other than the one they have repeatedly advocated -- to the point that they asserted authority over all state laws to force the governor to implement it. They even have threatened Brown with contempt if he did not comply, and their decisions have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Brown is appealing their latest order but is attempting to comply while that works its way through the courts.
If Brown, the state Legislature and inmates' attorneys can't reach agreement, the federal judges have said they will force the state to release less-serious offenders in order to reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates. The court has previously said that level is necessary to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates.
In opposing early releases, the governor and others have argued that California has already reduced the prison population by some 46,000 inmates to comply with the court's orders and said only the most dangerous convicts remain in state prison.
The proposal Brown released this week calls for sending some inmates to private prisons out of state and renting an entire 2,300-bed private prison in Kern County from Corrections Corp. of America, staffing it with guards employed by the state. He also wants to lease excess jail cells from Alameda and Los Angeles counties.
Associated Press writer Tom Verdin in Sacramento contributed to this report.