Extension of deadline on prison crowding looks like a win-win

It's a victory for Jerry Brown, but if all goes as planned, the taxpayers and many inmates may ultimately benefit too.

Lancaster prison in 2007

In a photo taken in 2007, inmates at the state prison in Lancaster are shown in "emergency" sleeping quarters in the gymnasium. That year, the state had 173,000 inmates crammed into prisons built for 82,000. Currently, 117,600 prisoners are in state lockups. (Los Angeles Times / March 3, 2007)

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown has dodged an artillery barrage fired by a battalion of liberals: federal judges and prisoners' lawyers. It's a big victory for the centrist.

But it's a win-win for a lot of people: the unrelenting judges and lawyers, the packed-like-sardines inmates, the taxpaying public and state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Because the judges Monday gave him a two-year extension on his deadline to end prison overcrowding, Brown won't be forced to release hordes of convicts — among them some potential Willie Hortons — as he runs for reelection this year. It further makes the run look like a walk.

The judges, lawyers and inmates will gradually obtain — although not as quickly as they'd liked — more breathing room in the lockups and, consequently, better medical and mental healthcare. Moreover, the felons will be provided improved rehab, education, job training and treatment for drug abuse.

And some prisoners will be given early release, although Brown certainly won't be calling it that.

The taxpaying public will be saving money in the long run. They'll be paying for incarcerating fewer prisoners. And those released will be more likely to go straight and not return as expensive wards of the state.

At least that's the theory. And it's worth trying, given that California's old stack-'em-like-cordwood mentality resulted in a recidivism rate — repeat lawbreaking — of 70%, twice the national average.

The public's attitude — and the rhetoric of Republican politicians — for too long have been punctured with glaring contradiction. They've demanded that the state lock up the bad guys and keep them there. No sentence seemingly was tough enough.

But the state is the people; it spends their money. And the last thing people want to spend tax money on is prisons, polls consistently show. Further, tough-on-crime Republicans won't raise taxes for any reason, let alone to make prisoners comfy.

Steinberg is smiling this week because what the three-judge federal panel ordered up Monday was pretty much what the Democratic senator had been pushing for last summer — against the objections of Brown and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles).

"It's a waste of money," Steinberg told me back then, referring to Brown's first proposal to spend roughly $1.1 billion over three years to transfer prisoners into privately run lockups, mostly out of state, and into local jails. "I'm not going to do it."

And he didn't, forcing Brown and Pérez to agree to compromise legislation that essentially was accepted by the federal judges.

"I'm very happy," the termed-out Senate leader said Tuesday. "It gives us time to redirect money from prison and jail cells to helping people reclaim their lives and reducing recidivism.

"It's an opportunity to redirect hundreds of millions of precious dollars from a strategy that didn't get us anywhere to one holding out real hope that tens of thousands of people with mental health and substance abuse issues, with no housing or job skills, can become productive members of society. There are some who won't, but lots will."

Steinberg is the Capitol's foremost optimist, but somebody needs to be.

The prison war began a long time ago with two separate class-action suits, one filed in 1990 on behalf of mentally ill inmates, the other in 2001 for medically ill prisoners. The federal jurists — relics of the Jimmy Carter era — ruled that overcrowding caused unconstitutionally inadequate healthcare, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. And for a long time, that was hard to dispute.

In 2007, the state had 173,000 inmates crammed into prisons built for 82,000. Many were triple bunked in gyms, day rooms and hallways, leaving little space for rehab, education or treatment.

Both sides screamed and pushed, especially after Brown took office in 2011. That's pretty much what it took to force a resolution.

"The prison systems were screwed up," Brown acknowledged. But "we've done a lot to fix them…. Most people in prison get better [healthcare] inside than they'll get once they're released."

And: "Enough already. Our prisons are not overcrowded."