Deal brokered on plan to ease California prison crowding

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SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders broke an impasse Monday over how to reduce prison crowding, agreeing to seek more time for that effort from federal judges but preparing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to relocate inmates if the jurists say no.

With only four days left in this year’s legislative session, the deal resolves a dispute over the best way to abide by an order to shed more than 9,600 inmates from California’s packed lockups by Dec. 31.

Under the compromise, the state would ask a panel of three federal judges for time to expand rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing the number of inmates who, after serving their time, commit new crimes and return to prison.


If the judges reject an extension, the state will implement Brown’s original plan to spend $315 million this year moving inmates to private prisons, county jails and other facilities. The money for the extra housing would come from the state’s $1.1-billion reserve.

The price tag is expected to increase to $415 million for each of the following two years.

Officials have already begun preparations to move prisoners, and the governor has pledged to comply with the court without releasing any inmates early.

Brown stood with Democratic and Republican leaders outside his office Monday morning — a rare display of bipartisan unity since he took office — saying he wants the judges to “recognize our commitment to longer-term solutions and to consider modifying their order.”

He did not specify how much extra time the state would seek.

The Legislature still must vote on the new plan, which incorporates key elements of a proposal from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Steinberg initially had called Brown’s plan inadequate, insisting on more programs to address drug abuse and mental illness.

Steinberg had proposed asking inmates’ lawyers and the judges for a three-year reprieve of the Dec. 31 deadline. The senator had said his plan eventually would reduce the prison population by about 9,600 inmates.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office had found flaws in the original proposals from both Brown and Steinberg. The governor’s plan was only a short-term fix, the analyst said, and the senator’s program would take effect too slowly.


On Monday, Steinberg reiterated his view that California needed more time to “invest in a more durable and sustainable solution to our overcrowding problem.”

Lawyers for inmates, who sued the state over prison conditions in a series of cases that led to the current court order, were not included in the negotiations that resulted in Monday’s plan.

“The governor hasn’t built up a lot of trust here,” said attorney Michael Bien, who is handling a lawsuit over mental healthcare in the prisons.

Right now, he said, the lawyers are skeptical of allowing the state more time to meet the court order to shrink inmate numbers, issued originally in August 2009 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2011. The judges already moved back the deadline from June 30 to Dec. 31.

“We are supportive of the effort to reduce the total burden on prisons by changing California laws,” Bien said, “but we have not agreed to [a] length of time.”

The judges, for their part, have previously expressed little interest in backing down from their latest deadline. They have repeatedly accused state officials of abusing any leniency given them in the decades-long legal battle over the prisons.


“Defendants have consistently sought to frustrate every attempt by this court to achieve a resolution to the overcrowding problem,” they wrote in June.

Brown, however, asserted Monday that there was a “reasonable chance” the judges would go along with the state’s revised plan.

“We’re not acting … just with no foundation,” he told reporters. “There are little smoke signals emanating from the mountaintops.”

He did not elaborate.

Times staff writers Anthony York and Paige St. John contributed to this report.