By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday responded to a federal court order to significantly reduce California’s prison population by proposing a $315 million plan to send thousands of inmates to private prisons and vacant county jail cells, hoping to avoid what he said would be a mass release of dangerous felons.
The cost could reach $700 million over two years, with much of the money likely to come from a $1.1 billion reserve fund in the state budget.
During a news conference at the Capitol, Brown bristled at the court’s suggestion that the state could continue its early release of certain inmates to meet the federal judges’ population cap. He noted 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 judges have ordered the state to release an additional 9,600 inmates by the end of the year.
Brown, however, said sending them to available cells in privately run prisons within California and in other states, as well as to empty jail cells, is the best way to meet the court’s mandate without endangering public safety.
“Public safety is the priority, and we’ll take care of it,” the governor said. “The money is there.”
The plan will now head to an uncertain fate in the Legislature, where the two Democratic leaders are at odds.
Assembly Speaker John Perez was joined by the Republican leaders of both houses at the governor’s news conference. Perez, a Democrat, said he expected lawmakers to approve the governor’s plan — or something close to it — before this year’s session ends in mid-September.
But approval is far from certain because of opposition from state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. He was noticeably absent from Brown’s news conference but issued a statement saying the plan had “no promise and no hope.”
He said continuing to pour money into additional space for prison inmates was not a long-term solution.
“As the population of California grows, it’s only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the court demands mass releases again,” Steinberg said in his statement.
He was not immediately available to elaborate but will offer his own proposal today to comply with the court order.
One of Steinberg’s chief lieutenants, Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, said California should create a sentencing commission that would consider reducing prison sentences for some crimes as a way to ease prison crowding in the long run.
Temporarily renting more cells “doesn’t solve the problem,” Leno said. “What’s the long-range solution here? Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in the same situation over and over and over again.”
If the Legislature fails to act, federal judges have said they have the authority to override state law and order the early releases.