In a direct slap to Gov. Jerry Brown, his fellow Democrats in the state Senate on Wednesday rejected his plan for dealing with California's prison crisis, throwing the state's response to a federal court order into chaos.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Brown's proposal to move inmates to private prisons and vacant county jail cells was essentially dead on arrival and that his chamber would not pass it.
“We oppose the governor's plan,” Steinberg told a Capitol news conference. “We think it is, as the governor himself said … It's throwing money down a rat hole.”
The comment was an apparent reference to a statement by Brown in January that he opposed pouring “more and more money down the rat hole of incarceration,” arguing that funds were needed elsewhere.
On Wednesday, Brown quickly dismissed Steinberg's alternative of seeking an extension from the court, creating a stalemate that leaves the state with no clear path just weeks before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year.
A day earlier, Brown presented his plan for addressing the federal court order that says the state must lower its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates by the end of the year. Judges have determined that a lower prison population is the best way to improve inmate medical and mental health care, which is at the heart of a long-running legal battle.
Brown proposed moving inmates to other facilities at an estimated cost of $730 million over two years. The money would likely come from the state's $1.1 billion reserve fund. His proposal has the support of statewide law enforcement and crime victims groups, but the spending requires legislative approval.
“My plan avoids early releases of thousands of prisoners and lays the foundation for longer-term changes, and that's why local officials and law enforcement support it,” Brown said in a statement.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, released a statement calling Brown's plan “the right plan given our circumstances.” Some of Steinberg's long-term proposals already are included in the governor's plan, he said.
While the Democratic Assembly speaker is on board, the Democrats who control the Senate are not. They are rejecting both the early release of inmates and spending any more money to house prisoners elsewhere.
“I know we are not going to do what was proposed yesterday,” Steinberg said. “It's not smart.”
Instead, he wants a three-year extension of the year-end deadline set by the federal courts.
That grace period would be designed to give local rehabilitation and drug and mental health treatment programs time to work. Steinberg said such programs, if properly implemented, will lower the crime rate and, by extension, send fewer people to prison.
He said that is part of a long-term and “durable” solution to lower the state's inmate population. In addition, Steinberg said he wants to establish an independent commission to determine the proper population level of California's 33 adult prisons, even though the federal courts have already done that and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld it.
Steinberg's office said his plan has the support of all 27 Democrats in the Senate.
His request for a delay in the inmate-reduction order is supported by the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuits over inmate medical and mental health care.
“Senator Steinberg's substantive proposals are acceptable to us and we are open to an extension of the date for compliance with the three judge court's order if an agreement produces an effective and sustainable approach that will resolve the chronic overcrowding problem in the state's prisons,” Donald Specter of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office said in a statement.
He said the actual length of the delay will have to be negotiated.
Brown and Perez appeared to reject those negotiations:
“It would not be responsible to turn over California's criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people,” the governor said.
His aides could not immediately say how the state would now resolve the impasse as time runs short.
Perez said he is “deeply skeptical” about giving inmates' attorneys the power to help determine how many inmates the prisons can humanely hold.
Joyce Hayhoe, spokeswoman for the court-appointed authority who oversees prison medical care, said the office would not comment on the dueling proposals.
The rejection of Brown's plan and the emergence of an alternate one is creating great uncertainty about the status of the court order and the state's ability to meet it. Lawmakers end this year's session on Sept. 13, providing a narrow legislative window to craft a compromise.
It's not yet clear whether the panel of three federal judges will entertain any solution other than the one they have repeatedly advocated — to the point that they asserted authority over all state laws to force the governor to implement it. They even have threatened Brown with contempt if he did not comply, and their decisions have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Brown is appealing their latest order but is attempting to comply while that works its way through the courts.
If Brown, the state Legislature and inmates' attorneys can't reach agreement, the federal judges have said they will force the state to release less-serious offenders in order to reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates. The court has previously said that level is necessary to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates.
In opposing early releases, the governor and others have argued that California has already reduced the prison population by some 46,000 inmates to comply with the court's orders and said only the most dangerous convicts remain in state prison.
The proposal Brown released this week calls for sending some inmates to private prisons out of state and renting an entire 2,300-bed private prison in Kern County from Corrections Corp. of America, staffing it with guards employed by the state. He also wants to lease excess jail cells from Alameda and Los Angeles counties.