Sacramento’s prison deal

At the heart of the state’s latest proposal to comply with a federal court order to reduce the prison population is a plea, yet again, for more time. If the judges say no and stick with their Dec. 31 deadline by which the state must release or find alternative housing for about 9,600 inmates, the deal brokered Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown and Assembly leaders on the one side and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on the other will revert to the foolish plan that Brown proposed last month: Spend down the state’s hard-won reserve fund by $715 million over the next two years and throw it down what the governor himself has called “the rathole of incarceration” by expanding the prison system with leased public and private cells for excess prisoners.

The end-of-year compliance date already represents a six-month reprieve from the original June deadline. The three-judge panel with jurisdiction over the case has rejected pleas for additional stays and has expressed, in barely disguised anger, its impatience with the state’s resistance.

So if there is even a wafer of a chance that the judges will grant more time, they will inevitably demand to know just what California plans to do with it. The governor and legislative leaders must demonstrate that any additional grace period would be devoted to a sufficiently profound rethinking and overhaul of the criminal justice system — including sentencing reform, diversion, supervision and rehabilitation — that the prisons would be exceedingly unlikely to be unconstitutionally overcrowded again anytime soon.

That’s why Brown was wise to incorporate Steinberg’s plan into his own. The Democratic Senate leader wants to create a $75-million fund to reduce recidivism. That’s the criminal justice system’s term for the return of ex-inmates to prison in a cycle of crime that picks the taxpayer’s pocket while putting the general public in danger.

Steinberg also wants to expand a successful program to reverse the economic incentive that counties currently have for sending convicted criminals to state prison and instead reward counties financially for handling offenders with local programs.


In broad strokes, Steinberg’s approach is smart, if not new. But the investment he proposes may be too small to make much of an impact. For the court to accept the joint proposal as a sufficient reason to lift the looming deadline — and for Californians to accept that their government has moved away from rathole spending and thinking toward a system that will keep innocent people safe, spending in line and ex-offenders on the straight and narrow — state leaders must provide more details about how they will change the current dysfunctional system.

Some of the problems to be solved are exasperatingly basic. For example, before they can successfully deal with recidivism, there needs to be general acceptance by everyone in the criminal justice system about what that word means. Do they count only convictions for crimes committed within the first year of release? The first three years? Do they count only convictions that can get the offender sent back to prison, or do they also count those that can result in a short jail stint? Do they count violations of probation that are not crimes? Without such a definition, they will never be able to accurately measure the outcome of any alternative sentencing program, fund the good ones or jettison the bad ones.

It’s not enough for state agencies to agree on definitions among themselves; they are part of a combined state and local system and must have criteria that are common and useful across county lines and among prosecutors, courts, jails, sheriffs and service providers. Along with definitions comes data; the state has made great strides in gathering and interpreting numbers, but there is a lot more to be done.

Once they have their definitions and numbers, the governor and the Legislature must demonstrate that they have the will and the resources to deal with the portion of the incarcerated population that is locked up at least in part because of drug addiction or mental illness, and they must provide effective treatment, where possible.

They must show that they can and will provide sufficient access to education and job training so that inmates who leave prison have some means at their disposal for staying out.

They must recognize that prisoners without addiction or mental health problems may nevertheless need a type of rehabilitation in the form of anger management and training in social skills and values.

They must be sufficiently wise to know that many offenders are going to commit crimes despite any rehabilitation, treatment, education or training, and that it is their first duty to protect the public from such criminals; and they should show that they have the assessment tools to effectively distinguish between those who can and those who can’t be diverted from the revolving prison door.

The governor and lawmakers must acknowledge that California’s prison overcrowding crisis is directly linked to bills passed and signed by their predecessors, and in many cases by themselves, that responded to headlines rather than any thoughtful and proportional approach to punishment; and they must sever the link between politics and sentencing by creating a commission that considers sentencing comprehensively.

Because Brown’s earlier proposal to expand prison space met with a decidedly mixed public response, it is possible that the governor and lawmakers are coming to realize that the conversation about criminal justice in California has changed. That realization could pave the way for a deeper, broader and more far-reaching discussion about reforming criminal justice in California, whether or not the three-judge panel grants additional time to comply with the inmate population cap.