In Salinas, Gov. Jerry Brown hears from prison policy critics

SALINAS -- Gov. Jerry Brown's tour of California's heartland came to Salinas on Thursday, as he met with local law enforcement officials, including some of the most vocal critics of his prison overhaul.

The trip follows visits by the governor to Fresno, Bakersfield and Riverside last week, as an election year begins and Brown drops in on parts of the state he has not frequently visited since becoming governor more than three years ago.

Brown, who was joined on the visit by his wife, Anne, said he would continue to tour the state to check in on the implementation of what he touts as two of his major accomplishments over the last three years -- giving more flexibility to school districts to spend money they receive from the state and asking counties to shoulder more of the burden in locking up criminals.

“This is a departure from Sacramento as usual,” he said of his visit, during which he handed out playing cards featuring his dog, Sutter, to local media. "I want to now take a more active role in working with localities dealing with crime and dealing with educational success."

Salinas, like the cities where Brown stopped last week, continues to feel the effects of the state's recent recession, even as residents in other parts of California see their economic situations improving.

A century ago, agriculture made Salinas one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the United States, according to the city's official website. While farming remains a major industry in the city, its economic standing has changed.

Unemployment in Salinas remains about 11%, about 3 percentage point higher than California as a whole. The city is 70% Latino, and the median income is about 20% lower than the statewide level, according to U.S. census data.

Less than 50 miles south of the business parks and million-dollar homes of San Jose, this part of Central California might as well be another world.  In the area around the county jail where Brown spoke to reporters, clusters of small stucco houses from the 1950s are separated by strip malls where, just before lunchtime, banda music booms from rolling pickup trucks.

Salinas is marked by miles of iceberg lettuce, artichoke and strawberry farms; 80% of the country's lettuce is grown in the region. This still feels like Steinbeck country, seemingly unchanged from the previous decades of boom and bust and boom again that have transformed the Salinas Valley.

Agriculture is still big business in the Salinas Valley -- about $2 billion per year -- and crime is still high. The local jails are so overcrowded that the country sends dozens of inmates north to Alameda, the county where Jerry Brown makes his Oakland Hills home.

Monterey County's sheriff, Scott Miller, has been a vocal critic of Brown's efforts to divert more inmates to county jails instead of state prisons, and on Thursday, the two met face to face, away from the cameras, to talk it out.

Miller appeared with Brown on Thursday after the meeting and gave the governor credit for listening to his concerns.

“It was like having a conversation with your brother-in-law in your living room,” he said of his chat with Brown. “He has no guile about him and he's incredibly astute politically."

The Monterey County jail has a capacity of 825 inmates, but had more than 1,200 when Brown signed his prison reform law in 2011 that would send more inmates to county jails instead of state prison. The sheriff said the law has meant about 200 extra inmates that have become the responsibility of the county, and called its implementation “painful.”

The problem is so bad that Monterey County currently has 60 prisoners housed in Alameda County, at an estimated cost of $1.7 million, Miller said.

Brown and Miller did not come to any deals on rectifying the problem Thursday, but the governor vowed to “check all the cookie jars in the Capitol basement” to find ways to send the county more money.


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