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Saturday, Aug 31 2013 11:05 PM

Don't catch Californians in prison crossfire

By The Bakersfield Californian

With only about two weeks left in the legislative session, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers must call a truce and agree on both short-term and long-term ways to meet a federal court order to ease overcrowding in the state's prisons.

After losing court battles all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown last week presented a plan to head off the mandated release of nearly 10,000 state prisoners by the court's Dec. 31 deadline.

Asking legislators for $315 million this year and $415 million next year, the governor is proposing to send more inmates to out-of-state prisons and lease private prison space in California.

The governor's plan involves leasing Corrections Corp. of America's private 2,400-bed facility in California City and staffing it with state correctional officers. Discussions reportedly are underway to reopen community correctional facilities in Taft, Delano and Shafter that were closed after state contracts expired.

CCA already houses about 9,000 California inmates in its facilities in Mississippi, Arizona and Oklahoma. Last year, efforts to reduce overcrowding in California prisons resulted in thousand of "low risk" inmates being sent to county jails.

For more than a decade, California's prisons operated at 200 percent of design capacity. According to Corrections and Rehabilitation Department records, as of Aug. 21, the system was at 143.8 percent capacity, with 123,743 inmates. The courts have ordered the system to shrink its prisoner population to 137.5 percent -- shedding nearly another 10,000 inmates.

Brown's plan, which has been endorsed by Democratic Assembly Speaker John A. Perez and many in the law enforcement community, has passed an Assembly committee and will be considered by the entire Assembly.

But the day after Brown released his plan, state Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg countered with a plan of his own to increase funding for inmate rehabilitation and mental health services, rather than adding additional beds.

Steinberg's plan also proposes to seek a three-year extension of the federal court's prisoner release deadline.

Lawyers representing inmates in a federal lawsuit over prison conditions have sided with Steinberg.

They have tentatively agreed to settle the case and support extending the deadline, if they can help craft prison reforms addressing such issues as setting caps on prison capacity, holding inmates in isolation and determining sentencing.

A showdown looms in the state Senate, which has only until Sept. 13, when the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn, to vote and send Brown a plan to reduce prison overcrowding.

Overcrowding is a problem that has been heating up for decades, coming to a furious boil in the past two years. And despite the willingness of the inmates' lawyers to go along with Steinberg's plan in exchange for a seat at the reform table, it is likely federal judges will regard this as yet another stalling tactic.

The time for extensions has past. No doubt the state's correctional system -- which is long on punishment and short on rehabilitation -- needs reform. But right now, we have federal judges who have ruled that crowded conditions and the lack of adequate medical and mental health services result in unconstitutional treatment of prisoners.

Steinberg should use Brown's need for Senate approval of his plan as leverage to get the long-term reforms that California's prison system desperately needs. Fund the additional beds the governor is requesting as a short-term solution, while demanding changes be made to the way California sentences, treats and rehabilitates its lawbreakers.

Steinberg is correct. The governor's plan has "no promise and no hope" for a better future for California. Steinberg and other prison reformers can protect Californians from the dangers of early prisoner release while giving us hope that tomorrow will be better.

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