Gov. Jerry Brown submits plan, unwillingly, to reduce inmates

Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking funds from the Legislature to help move more inmates out of California's prisons, while asking the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out his plan.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown has asked lawmakers for money to move thousands of inmates out of crowded state prisons, even as he appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court to make such a step unnecessary.

The governor sent the Legislature a request for $450 million over the next two years to lease up to 4,100 beds in county jails and private prisons and to continue shipping 8,500 inmates to other states.

He also proposes allowing inmates to earn more credit for time served by working at firefighting camps or completing classes. And he would allow more prisoners to qualify for medical parole or elder release.

The proposed changes are aimed at meeting a federal court order to cut the prison population by 9,600 inmates by the end of the year.

At the same time, one of the federal judges who is demanding that the state ease inmate crowding complicated matters Monday, ordering that thousands of inmates at risk of contracting valley fever be moved out of two prisons afflicted with the deadly fungus.


Brown sent his population-reduction plan — which he has said he does not support — to legislative leaders late last week. The proposal is more detailed than one he filed under protest with the court last month.

A panel of federal judges deemed that proposal inadequate and last week ordered Brown to begin releasing inmates unless he takes other immediate steps to ease overcrowding. On Monday, Brown appealed that release order to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he already is challenging the jurists’ population caps.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) shares Brown’s opposition to the population cap.

“The Senate does not plan to take up the proposed legislation,” said Steinberg’s press secretary, Rhys Williams.

Steinberg wrote to Brown on Monday that “there is only one constructive solution to prison overcrowding: keep people from coming back to prison after they are released.”

Brown’s legislative proposal would double the credit that low-level inmates could earn by agreeing to work at low-security firefighting camps — shaving two days from their sentences for every day spent at a fire camp. Other offenders could receive 20% to 34% more credit by participating in other programs.

The governor would also allow those “suffering severe physical or cognitive debilitation” to become eligible for medical release and create a parole program for inmates older than 60 who have spent at least 25 years behind bars. Those sentenced to death would not be eligible.

Under his new proposal, Brown would essentially maintain the number of prisoners housed in other states. Some 8,500 California felons are behind bars as far away as Mississippi.

He had earlier sought to cut in half the costs for those prisoners in the coming budget year by stopping the transfers, and wanted to end out-of-state contracts entirely after that.

Now Brown is asking that $150 million to house prisoners be added to the budget that would take effect next month, and an additional $300 million more beginning in July 2014.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson late Monday granted prisoners’ lawyers motion for an order requiring the state to move inmates at greatest risk of valley fever. Those include African Americans and Filipinos at two Central California prisons, Pleasant Valley and Avenal. The state has 90 days to comply.

Henderson’s order is critical of the state’s handling of valley fever outbreaks within its prisons, during which 36 prisoners with valley fever have died in the last six years.

He said California officials “clearly demonstrated their unwillingness to respond adequately to the healthcare needs of California’s inmate population.”

Henderson added that is “particularly ironic, given Defendants’ insistence in other court filings that they are now providing a constitutional level of care.”