Contained in Senator Darrell Steinberg’s criticism of Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for more money to deal with prison overcrowding is actually the reason why the governor’s plan should be implemented. Concerned that the prisoner problem will grow with the increase in the state’s population, Steinberg said in a press release, “For every ten prisoners finishing their sentences, nearly seven of them will commit another crime after release and end up back behind bars.” If the courts demand nearly 8,000 prisoners freed – more than 5,500 will commit a crime. Californians are at great risk.

Let’s not be accused of taking Sen. Steinberg’s position out of context. He believes that governor’s proposal for $315 million to house prisoners in private prison space and out-of-state prisons is only a short-term fix and that the money could be used more wisely in dealing with the prisoners. He thinks the money should be invested instead in mental health programs, drug treatment efforts and vocational rehabilitation.

Those efforts may be positive long term, but the problem is the governor must act now. The court has given the state until the end of the year to deal with overcrowding or the judges will order prisoners freed. If the recidivism rate Steinberg references comes into play, then there will be danger for California’s citizens. Steinberg’s plan would surely not alter the overcrowding in the next few months – even if the money for those programs is spent well, not a sure thing.

No one can fault Steinberg’s passion and commitment to treat mental health matters. But, his criticism of the governor’s proposal tied to the senator’s request for funds for those issues comes on the heels of a state audit that could not determine if $7.4 billion to deal with mental health problems was spent wisely.

The money comes from a tax plan championed by Steinberg and passed by the voters as Proposition 63 in 2004. To be fair, Steinberg, along with Assembly member Dan Logue called for the fund’s audit.

The Bureau of State Audits revealed that in examining four counties (Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Bernardino), it could not get basic information on how the money was spent.

Given that sad situation, what makes anyone believe that putting new monies into the programs Steinberg suggests will solve the prison overcrowding problem before the federal court decides the state must act and release prisoners?

The prisoner problem has festered but it demands the kind of immediate fix the governor is proposing to protect the public’s safety. Then the legislature can get down to business and find out how tax dollars have been spent – and should be spent – to make changes for the long term.