Growing prison population spurs calls for change

SACRAMENTO -- With renewed growth in the state prison population undercutting efforts to reduce overcrowding, the Democratic leader of the state Senate is calling for fundamental changes to prison sentences and rehabilitation in California.

State estimates produced in late December show another 3,700 inmates are expected this year, and 6,400 more over the next five years. That equals growth rates forecast before Gov. Jerry Brown launched a major shift sending low-level felons to county jails instead of state prisons.


The resumption in prison growth is consuming a larger chunk of taxpayer money -- more than $12 billion for corrections in Brown's proposed 2014-15 budget. By contrast, the governor's spending plan adds $209 million to expand rehabilitation and treatment efforts aimed at reducing recidivism.

Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) praised the governor for increasing rehabilitation spending, but said what is needed is "a fundamental redirection of resources to keep people from returning once they leave" prison.

"It is the cause of overcrowding," he said, "and $209 million is not fundamental enough."

Steinberg joins the American Civil Liberties Union and prisoners' advocates in pushing for changes in state sentencing laws that dictate prison time.

"The sentencing structure has to be reformed to make it consistent with the capacity of the prison system to incarcerate prisoners in humane conditions," said Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office, which succeeded in forcing federal courts to take control of prison medical care.

"Something is going to have to happen," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Sacramento-based Crime Victims Action Alliance. "Either we decriminalize a lot of laws, which is not an option, or we build some new space."

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