Gov. Jerry Brown today announced a plan to comply with a federal court limit on prison overcrowding by leasing more space for nearly 8,000 inmates from county jails, private facilities and other states for $315 million.
The limit order, issued by a three-judge panel and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, requires the state to cap its prison population at 137.5 percent of design capacity.
“The only way to comply that is consistent with public safety is to purchase additional space. So that’s the plan,” Brown said at a Sacramento news conference.
Brown said he believes the alternative of releasing more prisoners to meet the cap would endanger public safety.
A crowd of Democratic and Republican legislators and law enforcement representatives who joined him at the conference said they agreed.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said, “Now that the courts have tied our hands, we have two options: the release or this option. We’re not going to release additional prisoners.”
State Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said Senate Republicans support the proposal because “we believe the safety of California families should be our first and foremost priority.”
The $315 million plan requires the approval of the Legislature, which Perez said he hopes will come quickly.
Details of the proposal, including exactly where the additional space will be found, will be given in proposed legislation to be unveiled Wednesday, Perez said.
The speaker said he hopes the bills will go through the Assembly budget committee on Thursday.
The population cap order came after two federal judges presiding over civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners concluded that severe overcrowding was the cause of woefully inadequate medical and mental health care that fell below constitutional standards.
Those two judges and a third judge then ordered the population cap. After several unsuccessful appeals by state officials and several extensions, the deadline now stands at Dec. 31.
The state now houses 119,783 inmates in 34 adult prisons, including a new medical facility recently opened in Stockton, with a design capacity of 81,574, according to statistics provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Meeting the 137.5 percent cap thus requires either reducing the population by 7,619 inmates or expanding capacity by that number.
Donald Specter, a lawyer for the inmates, called the plan “expensive and wasteful.”
“It’s going to increase prison capacity without any advancement of public safety,” said Specter, who said he believes that more low-risk, ill and elderly prisoners could be released without harm.
Brown noted that the population has been reduced by 46,000 since 2006 and said he doesn’t think any more prisoners can be safely released. About half the reduction is the result of a realignment policy that shifts low-level offenders to county jails.
The three-judge panel was convened under a U.S. law that provides that in prison civil rights cases, an order to reduce inmate population can be made only by a three-judge court and not by a single judge.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News