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Senate panel backs plan to increase prison rehab
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Democrats in the state Senate on Wednesday backed a plan to spend $200 million this year on rehabilitation programs instead of renting thousands of cells in private prisons and county jails to meet a federal court demand that California reduce its inmate population.

The rehabilitation proposal by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is competing with the leasing plan by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown that would cost $315 million in its first year.

The federal court has ordered the state to reduce the prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates before the end of the year, part of a long-running court case aimed at improving inmate medical and mental health care.

The Senate Budget Committee advanced the proposal by Steinberg, D-Sacramento, which relies on getting court approval to delay the inmate-reduction deadline for three years and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a variety of counseling programs that he says will lower crime rates.

The committee sent the bill to the full Senate on a party-line, 11-5 vote, with Republicans opposing it. An Assembly committee approved the governor's proposal last week with support from Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Republican leaders.

Brown called Steinberg's plan "an inmate release plan by another name, totally dependent on an illusory legal settlement."

"I will not turn over our criminal justice system to lawyers who operate at the behest of their inmate clients," Brown said, referring to Steinberg's call for the administration to negotiate a settlement with attorneys representing inmates.

Moreover, Brown said in a statement that Steinberg's plan would add to the burden of local governments already struggling with a 2-year-old law that is sending less serious offenders to local jails instead of state prisons.

The impasse among the state's Democratic leaders has led to confusion as the state moves to appeal the lower court's order to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawmakers are racing for a solution before their scheduled adjournment next week, although Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said the governor should call a special session to forge a compromise.

Democrats on the Senate committee said the governor is proposing to pour more money from the state's $1.1 billion budget reserve into a flawed corrections system that provides little rehabilitation, leading to nearly seven of every 10 convicts returning to prison within three years of their release.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said he was disturbed that Brown wants to lease additional prison space that could ultimately cost the state billions of dollars in the coming years.

That is "hundreds of millions of dollars every year that could be spent educating our children," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

Republican senators said they would welcome a compromise that includes both an increase in prison capacity and increased spending on rehabilitation programs. But they took turns blaming majority Democrats for blocking previous efforts to build additional prison space and increase educational and vocational programs.

Steinberg has said he would not allow Brown's proposal to be debated in the Senate but told committee members that he would consider some increase in capacity as part of a comprehensive plan, particularly if the leased cells are mainly within California.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard acknowledged that the governor's plan is a stop-gap solution while the administration develops ways to divert more offenders from prison with rehabilitation programs and sentencing changes similar to those already proposed by Steinberg.

Steinberg said there is no reason to believe the courts would support Brown's plan because judges have repeatedly favored other options, including increasing good time credits that lead to early release for thousands of inmates.

Beard countered that the court panel that ordered the population cap is unlikely to approve a three-year delay. Passing the governor's plan would put the state in a stronger bargaining position with inmates' attorneys and the courts, Beard said.

Drew Soderborg of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office told the Senate committee there are uncertainties and risks with both plans.

He said temporary leases could leave the state facing the same shortage of roughly 8,800 contract beds in two years, while there is no guarantee that Steinberg's programs would result in fewer inmates in time to meet even a delayed deadline.

Senators from both parties called on legislative leaders and the governor to reach a compromise in the few remaining days before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

"I would urge that we blend these proposals," said Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose. "I think we can come together with a solution."