By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO — Eight months after Gov. Jerry Brown tried to end California’s reliance on private prisons to handle an overflow of inmates, his administration has changed tactics. It now is seeking to expand their use as a less-harmful alternative to releasing thousands of prisoners early.
The administration plans to soon ask federal judges to let the state move at least 4,000 inmates to private cells in California and other states as one way of reducing crowding in the state’s major prisons by nearly 10,000 inmates by year’s end.
The Democratic governor also proposes to keep an additional 9,000 inmates in private prisons in other states for an extra three years.
It’s a sea change from January, when he declared the state’s prison crowding crisis was over and private prisons no longer needed.
The administration’s reluctance to pay corporations to house inmates in distant locations hasn’t changed, but circumstances have, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said. He said the change was forced when the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to delay a lower court order requiring the state to reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates by the end of the year.
“Out-of-state isn’t something that any of us like to do, because you keep inmates further away from home,” Beard said. “You’re spending your money to house them not in California but in some other state.”
California has paid Corrections Corp. of America more than $1 billion to house inmates in its private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma since the emergency relief program was begun by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Brown had proposed to phase out the program to save the state about $300 million annually.
But the alternative now is to release serious and violent offenders, Beard said.
The state is running out of lower risk offenders who could safely be released early, he said, because most are already being sentenced to county jails instead of state prisons under a 2-year-old state law designed to reduce prison crowding in response to earlier court orders.
Federal courts including the Supreme Court have consistently ruled that reducing the population is necessary to improve conditions for the inmates who remain. The administration is mainly relying on other increases in prison capacity to comply with the crowding reduction order.
They include sending an additional 1,250 inmates to firefighting camps; transferring 1,820 inmates to a recently completed medical facility in Stockton; and slowing the return of nearly 3,600 inmates from private prisons in other states. Another 1,100 inmates will be transferred next year to a mental health facility currently under construction in Stockton, 50 miles south of the state capital.
If federal judges agree, the additional rented beds would replace a court-ordered increase in good time credits leading to early release for about 4,000 additional inmates to meet the population cap.
“Now they’re doing what we said all along, which is that they had alternatives to a mass release,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that is among law firms representing inmates’ welfare in the ongoing court battle.
But he and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said contract beds are an expensive temporary solution that does nothing to solve the long-term imbalance that results when tough sentencing laws send more inmates to prison than the penitentiaries are designed to hold.
Steinberg supported spending the additional money from the state’s rebounding revenues if that’s what it takes to keep dangerous felons incarcerated. But he said that if legislators are asked to approve the money, he also wants to increase spending on mental health and substance abuse treatment programs as a long-term way of helping inmates and parolees.
Brown may not need to ask lawmakers to appropriate money for the prison contracts because the courts have waived state law and the state Constitution in ordering the governor to take whatever steps are necessary to reduce the prison population by year’s end.
Some Republicans, including former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, are calling on Brown to build new prisons or reopen closed facilities. Maldonado is exploring a run for governor next year, when Brown is expected to seek re-election.
The $1 billion that California has spent on private out-of-state prisons since 2006 would have more than paid for two of the 5,000-bed maximum-security prisons of the sort the state last opened in 2005.
The state estimates it costs an average $56,000 to house an inmate in a California state prison, more than double the $26,000 annual average cost for a contract cell in another state.