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Freeing inmates is criminal

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POSTED September 3, 2013 12:56 a.m.

Why would someone who opposes draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences oppose efforts to cut California’s prison population by about 9,600 inmates? Because the federal system and the California system are two different animals.

U.S. prosecutors have been known to throw the full weight of the federal government toward putting low-level, nonviolent offenders away for decades.

In California, the focus has been on violent and serious offenders. In the past several years, Sacramento has reduced the state prison population by about a quarter, or more than 40,000 inmates. Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2011 “realignment” plan diverted nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex offenders to county jails or programs.

Now, apparently, Brown has hit his limit. “The proverbial low-hanging fruit, they’re gone,” California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton noted. “The people who still come to prison are serious and violent and sex offenders.”

Now Brown wants to put the brakes on the inmate exodus. Alas, in 2009, a panel of three federal judges ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. Please note that 100 percent capacity means one inmate per cell; by this definition, every prison is overcrowded. No worries: The judges also concluded that overcrowding is “criminogenic” — or likely to produce criminals. So they ordered the inmate reduction, which Brown clearly fears would be truly criminogenic.

“If you let 10,000 people out, what happens if they decide not to go to church every Sunday and instead commit serious crimes?” Dao Gov noodled during a news conference. They will have earned their way back to prison, but thanks to the judges’ inmate cap, there will be no room at the inn. Before freeing inmates, Brown argued, do-gooders should ask, “How many people will pledge not to commit crimes that will get them back in?”

“Politically, (Brown has) been with the releases all the way down the line,” observed Kent Scheidegger of the tough-on-crime Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which opposed Brown’s realignment plan. Now that Brown wants to stop an inmate release, he added, “I do think he genuinely believes that releasing another 10,000 would indeed increase crime.”

Brown fought the three-judge panel all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he lost. (So much for the Roberts court’s being conservatively activist.) With a Dec. 31 deadline looming, the Democratic governor has been left with two choices — free thousands of inmates who are likely to reoffend or find more prison beds. Here “find” means “build them or buy them.”

The governor reached out to Assembly Speaker John Perez, Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway and state Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff to put together a bipartisan package to place state prisoners in privately owned facilities. To pay for the program, Sacramento will have to raid budget reserves to the tune of about $415 million per year.

“I always tell the governor,” Conway later quipped, “I love it when he channels his inner Republican.” For their part, Conway and Huff had to hold back the temptation to criticize Brown for not spending some of the $7.4 billion in bond funds approved in 2007 to build more prisons.

Perez has the thankless task of standing with Brown and GOP leaders as state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushes an alternative plan that screams the sort of soft-on-crime thinking that drove up crime in the Golden State until voters approved a three-strikes ballot measure in 2000. Steinberg proposed spending $200 million per year on drug treatment and mental health programs; in exchange, prison inmate attorney Donald Specter might agree to a legal settlement that would give the state three years to reduce the prison population, not four months.

If an attorney for inmates might agree to keep some 10,000 inmates in prison, that says two things: The prisoner lobby can live with the status quo, and maybe it’s afraid of what happens if too many inmates go free. As Scheidegger blogged, “if you release prisoners in order of dangerousness, the danger to the public safety per prisoner released increases as you go along.”

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