What part of “forthwith” doesn’t Darrell Steinberg understand?
If there’s one thing the federal judges holding sway over California’s prison overcrowding lawsuit have been consistently clear on, it’s that they want the problem fixed and they want it fixed now.
Every time Gov. Jerry Brown has gone to the judges and suggested that California has already done enough or that the state needs more time to trim its prison population, there’s been a simple – and increasingly peevish — answer: No.
“For approximately a year, (Brown and the state) have acted in open defiance of this court’s order,” Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt said in denying a request last April to modify or drop the inmate reduction order. He charged Brown with “openly contumacious conduct” and suggested that if the governor doesn’t get those numbers down in a hurry, a contempt of court citation could make him part of those prison inmate statistics.
When a federal judge starts to out-Latin the former seminarian in the governor’s office (“contumacious,” from the Latin, meaning “willfully or stubbornly disobedient to authority”), you know things are getting serious.
So why does the Democratic head of the state Senate think those judges and justices will be any more willing to grant him a three-year extension of those demands just because he has a plan that may or may not work?
Steinberg and his allies want to spend $200 million a year for improved and increased rehabilitation and mental health programs, which they say will reduce both crime and recidivism, cutting the number of people that will be sent to state prisons.
But it’s not as though similar programs haven’t been tried before with results that were, at best, mixed. And even three years isn’t much time for this type of program to show results.
And since the courts are clear that they want about 8,000 inmates out of the state’s prisons by December 31, how exactly can that be done without letting a bunch of bad people back into the community?
And make no mistake, any mass release is going to include some hard cases who aren’t likely to give up their life of crime in return for a promise of drug treatment and rehab programs.
A June 2013 Public Policy Institute of California study of the state’s prison population showed that California has cut its number of male prison inmates from 163,000 in 2006 to 144,00 in October 2011, and all the way down to 118,727 as of Aug. 21. But that still leaves the state short of the 110,000-inmate limit set by the courts.
That same report also showed that as of the end of last year, 88 percent of state prison inmates had a current or prior violent or serious felony conviction. Sixteen percent were registered sex offenders, 25 percent were serving a “second strike” sentence and 19 percent are lifers with a chance for parole. Even among those with non-serious and non-violent offenses, 50 percent are considered to be high risks to commit new crimes if they were released.
All the low-hanging fruit has been picked. The check kiters, the grifters, the low-end drug users and other small-time criminals already have been released or shipped to county lockups. Most of the folks left in state prison belong there.
That’s why the governor, with the backing of Assembly Speaker John Perez and most Republicans, is holding his nose and calling for a plan to spend $315 million this year and $415 million next year to move inmates to cells in other states or elsewhere outside the state prison system to meet the judges’ order.
Money for more prison cells will “throw $700 million down the black hole that is California’s broken prison system,” Paul Song of the Courage Campaign said in a statement Thursday. At an Assembly hearing Thursday, Rebecca Gonzales, representing a social workers group, argued that the money for prisons is cash that won’t go into rebuilding California’s communities.
They’re right, of course. Money to keep people from going to prison for the first time or from entering the revolving door after they’re released is a way better use of public funds than finding new and expensive ways to warehouse an ever-growing number of offenders.
But the judges, all the way up to the justices of the Supreme Court, aren’t concerned about rebuilding California communities or long-range plans to reform the state’s prison system. Their legal concern involves the constitutional rights of those prisoners in the state’s overcrowded prisons, which they say are violated by every day they spend in those conditions.
Steinberg’s plan may well cut the prison population over time, but as Brown has noted, the judges want action now, not three years from now. And keeping citizens safe is one of any governors most important jobs.
As Reinhardt said in his opinion, Brown and the state don’t have to agree with the court’s decision, but they do have to comply with it.
Brown and the state “will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States,” he said.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.