Opinion Editorial

Stop the foot-dragging on the prisons, Gov. Brown

There is real merit in Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's proposal to address California's prison overcrowding problem. Counties currently have a financial incentive to send inmates to state prisons and get them off local books; Steinberg would instead assist counties that divert felons locally to successful treatment programs. The state could go further and actually reverse the incentive by following the model for juvenile offenders, sending state money to counties for each offender who stays in the local jurisdiction.

Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, would also create a sentencing commission, a long-awaited step that lawmakers have resisted until now because it might curb their ability to pass tough-on-crime bills one at a time to grab headlines and curry favor with law enforcement groups. Other states have brought rationality, proportionality and efficiency to their sentencing processes by relying on commissions. It is well past time for California to follow suit.

The most apparent problem with Steinberg's proposal is that it rests on the seemingly absurd notion that the federal court that has ordered a reduction in the state prison population would now consider postponing its Dec. 31 deadline, after the state has dragged its feet on sustainable reduction efforts and after courts have rejected previous bids for stays and delays. Even when the state has had good plans for creating a smarter, more just and more efficient criminal justice system — plans like those Steinberg presented Wednesday — it has never seemed to muster the will to follow through until it faced a hard, unyielding deadline. The courts' insistence on a prison population that represents 137.5% of design capacity or lower by the end of the year has finally gotten state officials, including Steinberg, to move, and judges have good reason to be skeptical of new promises to act in the absence of a looming drop-dead date.

But plaintiffs in the Coleman and Plata prison overcrowding cases, which produced the reduction orders, have said they are open to discussing an extension based on Steinberg's other proposals. California would benefit from such talks.

By contrast, the new plan presented by Gov. Jerry Brown and supported by legislative Republicans, Assembly Democrats and many law enforcement officials represents more foot-dragging, more cost and more denial. The governor would raid the state's reserve fund for $315 million to rent and reopen more prison cells, but not enough to keep ahead of an increasing number of inmates. California would be out of compliance with the population cap again in a matter of months, a fact surely not lost on the court. Brown should drop his plan, take a cue from Steinberg and give the court, and California, sustainable criminal justice reform.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Rethinking drug sentences
    Rethinking drug sentences

    Atty. Gen. Eric Holder decries the imprisonment of too many people for too long at too high a cost for lesser drug crimes.

  • False confessions are costly to California
    False confessions are costly to California

    The chance to avoid false confessions is just one of many good reasons to videotape interviews of suspects in custody.

  • Time served -- and wasted -- for a nonviolent drug offense
    Time served -- and wasted -- for a nonviolent drug offense

    Federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws kept a woman in prison long after she had gotten her act together.

  • Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises
    Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises

    Six months ago, President Obama's foreign policy looked stymied. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians were at a dead end. Russia was gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. U.S. efforts to end the war in Syria were ineffective. A new extremist army, Islamic State, was marching into Iraq.

  • Ukraine should put Russia to the test
    Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage...

  • The great fear of the great outdoors
    The great fear of the great outdoors

    Americans find ourselves in a period — arguably, the first in our nation's history — when our unease about being in nature is coming to outweigh our desire for it. We have a growing intolerance for inconvenience, a feeling well captured by the suburban fifth-grader who memorably...

Comments
Loading