California prisons chief Jeffrey Beard says he is concerned more reductions of the state prison population would overwhelm counties already struggling with the state's 2011 realignment program.
The state achieved a 25,000 reduction in its prison population by requiring counties to take on criminals from three fronts: County jails must house lower-level offenders and state parole violators, and those released from prison now go through county probation. Even so, California prisons continue to exceed population caps set by federal courts.
Under threat of being held in contempt, Gov. Jerry Brown has been given until next week to submit a plan for further reductions.
Beard appeared before the Los Angeles Times editorial board on Thursday. Brown's corrections secretary fleshed out an argument the state has also made in court, that any further shift of the criminal justice burden is dangerous.
"There are some counties that are really struggling," Beard said. "I have a real concern that if you shift more to them, you start to have problems ... it could unravel what has been a huge historic change."
Beard said he expects it will take several more years for county justice systems to adjust to the changes California already has made, including to build jail space for inmate treatment and education programs.
Some Democrats already have joined Republican lawmakers in calling for partial rollbacks of realignment, seeking laws that would require chronic parole violators, sex offenders who disarm their GPS devices and others to be sent back to prison. For now they are receiving pushback from defenders of realignment, who blame local crime problems on a failure for local officials to change how they operate.
The courts, meanwhile, contend California prisons continue to violate the constitutional rights of inmates by providing inadequate care, and the state must take action.
Beard echoed Brown's vow to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but said the state also will meet the court deadline for filing a prison reduction plan. He said the administration is starting with options outlined in January that included various early release programs.
Increasing the number of inmates sent to private prisons out of state is only a limited option, he said, in part because those facilities generally don't take high-security, medically or mentally ill inmates, which is largely what California now has left.
What's more, Beard said, shipping prisoners out of California severs important community ties that are needed to help those offenders later re-enter society. "I see out-of-state as sometimes being a necessary evil," he said.