Brown scores by taking on feds and felons

Governor's stance on prisons shows his political prowess as he gets points for good politics and good policy.

Jerry Brown

California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a news conference declaring the state's prison emergency is over. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

SACRAMENTO — You've got to appreciate a governor who stands up and says: "This is not a game. And I didn't come here — I'll be 75 in April — just to screw around.

"I'm trying to fix this state that has been screwed up for a long time. And we're fixing the money problem. We're fixing the prison problem.... California is a powerful state. We can run our own prisons. And by God, let those [federal] judges give us our prisons back."

And at another point he puts an exclamation on it: "We don't have a lot of money. We've got to pay down the wall of debt. We have uncertain economic times. We can't pour more and more dollars down the rathole of incarceration."

For starters, you've got to appreciate Gov. Jerry Brown as an entertainer. During a lengthy news conference Tuesday he gestured, defied and ranted. No talking points, at least none that he read. It was all ad lib and in non-government speak. Regular, understandable folk English.

California has had other entertaining governors, but they were professional entertainers out of Hollywood who didn't possess — and couldn't articulate — nearly the depth of policy substance that Brown has acquired over the decades.

You've also got to appreciate the governor who says he's not playing "a game" — but is performing as one of the all-time best political players. He's going on 75 but hasn't lost his eye for a fat pitch that can be slammed out of the park.

A state politician will score every time taking on federal judges and felons.

It's an excellent example of good policy being good politics.

"There's a negative public perception of prisons and prisoners," Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of the Public Policy Institute of California, once told me. "Average voters don't like to think of their money being spent on making conditions too comfortable."

A Baldassare poll last year showed that 64% of Californians would be willing to pay higher taxes for K-12 schools and 54% for health and human services. But only 17% would dig deeper for prisons; 81% would object.

Brown put it this way Tuesday: "Look, everybody wants to send people to prison. Nobody wants to pay for it."

California voters did, at least, side with common sense in November and approve Proposition 36, which will further reduce the prison population by relaxing the three-strikes sentencing law.

Another thing to appreciate about Brown's news conference: His legitimate crowing about achievements. The chronically unbalanced state budget is nearing stability, thanks to significant spending cuts and the tax increase the governor talked voters into approving.

Now he's trying to check prison overcrowding off the "to do" list.

"I'm here to announce that the prison emergency is over in California," Brown began the news conference, never mind that federal courts will be the final judge on that. "The job is now complete."

Actually, Brown appears to be correct.

In 2005, when federal courts began taking control of prisoners' healthcare, state lockups were jammed to nearly twice the capacity they were built for.

Thousands of prisoners were stacked like cordwood in barracks, gyms and hallways, some triple-bunked. There was little room for exercise and rehab: education, job training and drug treatment. Recidivism rose to twice the national average.

"They had a good point," Brown told reporters, referring to prisoner rights activists who sued the state. "The prison systems were screwed up. We've done a lot to fix them…. We've done it….They've actually beat down the state of California. We've shaped up. We're standing at attention."

"We've gone from a serious constitutional problem to one of the finest prison systems in the United States," he contended. "Most of the people in prison get far better [healthcare] inside the prison than they'll get once they're released on the streets....