Gov. Jerry Brown is still batting .000 against the federal judges dealing with the state’s prison overcrowding suit and it doesn’t look like his slump is going to end anytime soon.
Despite the governor’s angry words and continuing court battles, it’s past time to sit down with all parties and try and work out the best of the bad deals available for the state.
It was a tough week for Brown, who is trying to meet the demand of a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that some 8,000 inmates be removed from the state prison system without actually letting any of those prisoners go free.
Facing a Dec. 31 deadline from the increasing impatient jurists, Brown asked for a three-year delay in meeting the long-standing timeline.
In a court order this week, the judges gave Brown four extra weeks, until Jan. 27.
Brown said that without that three-year extension, he was going to start moving California inmates to out-of-state prisons on Sept. 30.
Not going to happen, the judges said.
And the governor, who has been adamant that he does not intend “to turn over California’s criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people,” was ordered by the judges to immediately meet with those same attorneys to “explore how defendants (that’s Brown and the state) can comply with this Court’s June 20, 2013 Order.”
Brown, furious that the judges are blocking his plan to relieve overcrowding by sending prisoners on an out-of-state road trip, had Attorney General Kamala Harris file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the three-judge panel has exceeded its authority.
Given the state’s continuing losing streak in federal court, it’s unlikely Brown is going to find much sympathy at the highest court of the land.
Brown’s concern is that the judges have already decided that the only way California can end overcrowding is by immediately releasing inmates already in the system. In their most recent order, the judges said that the talks with the attorneys behind the suit “shall specifically include” discussion of prisoners such as three strikers, juveniles, the elderly and medically infirm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates and others who may be at low risk to re-offend.
Setting those prisoners free is the last thing Brown wants. Just about every plan he’s come up with has involved keeping California inmates in custody somewhere, whether it’s in local jails, private prisons in the state or out-of-state lockups.
Even the compromise agreement he made with state Sen. Darrell Steinberg called for keeping cutting the prison population by limiting the number of new or repeat lawbreakers sent to the penitentiary, not by cutting loose those already inside.
The problem is as much politics as penology. A new survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that adults in the state by a 52 percent to 39 percent margin supported Brown’s plan to spend $315 million to deal with prison overcrowding. At the same time, 78 percent of California adults were at least somewhat concerned about the effects of a possible early release of state prison inmates.
Californians, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, are willing to spend plenty of money to meet the court’s order to ease overcrowding, just so long as the prison gates stay locked.
But the political problems surrounding the release of thousands of state prison inmates into California communities are Brown’s worry, not the judges. The overcrowding violates prisoners’ constitutional rights, they said, and they want Brown and the state to comply with their order.
The one ray of hope for the state is that the judges want the upcoming discussions to not only deal with ways “by which compliance can be expedited or accomplished,” but also with ways the court “can ensure a durable solution to the prison crowding problem.”
Shuffling prisoners through a variety of jails and prisons outside the state corrections system is a desperate, short-term move that’s little more than the illusion of a solution. It’s not only expensive, but it’s also unsustainable. Without changes at the front end of the justice system, the back end will continue to grow.
Steinberg’s call for improved rehabilitation programs for inmates and young offenders, alternative sentencing and changes to the state’s “tough on crime” sentencing rules have a much better chance of becoming that “durable solution” the judges want to see. But even three years isn’t much time to show the type of results needed to trim back the prison population as much as the courts have ordered and it’s unlikely the judges – or the inmates’ lawyers – will be willing to agree to even that much of a delay.
But it should be increasing clear, even to Brown, that either he must make a serious move to deal with prison overcrowding or it will be done for them. And if that means making nice to the inmate lawyers – and the Ninth Circuit judges – well, no one said it was easy being governor.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.