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.