Weeks after judges pushed the state towards releasing prisoners and months after he argued the prison population wasn't too large, Gov. Jerry Brown now wants to move thousands of inmates to private and local lockups.
"This is the sensible, prudent way to proceed," said Brown at a Tuesday afternoon news conference at the Capitol.
The governor, flanked by a bipartisan group of legislators, local officials, and law enforcement, unveiled a plan that would cost more than $1.1 billion over three years in moving 8,000 more inmates out of state prisons... but not out of custody.
"People have got to be assured that the state and local government is protecting their safety," said the governor. "And we do that in the plan that we laid out. And anything more precipitous, I think, has both short-term and long-term, very negative consequences."
The proposal, which is slated to receive its first legislative hearing on Thursday, is structured as an amendment to the state budget enacted in June. It would cost the state $315 million in the fiscal year that runs through next June 30, and officials estimate a $415 million a year cost in the following two budget years.
Exactly where those inmates would be sent remains still unclear. The legislation delays the planned closing of a state prison in Riverside County, and approves the use of a private prison in Kern County. Many of the other details -- from out of state facilities to unused beds in some county jails -- are yet to be decided.
Jeffrey Beard, the governor's corrections secretary, said Tuesday that as many as 3,000 of the 8,000 inmates may be able to be housed in-state in the near future, with more moved back to California from outside facilities sometime later.
The Brown administration insists that the plan, if approved by the Legislature, should not be subject to rejection by the three federal judges that have ordered the state to lower the prison population to around 109,000 inmates by Dec. 31.
"The only way to comply with that, consistent with public safety," said the governor, "is to purchase additional capacity. That's the plan."
Brown's pitch is backed up by three of the four legislative leaders -- Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles; Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare; and Senate GOP leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
But that leaves a powerful Democrat at odds with the coalition backing the governor: Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
"The governor's proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in a written statement. The Senate leader has insisted that other long-term needs, notably mental health services, are the only way from simply finding a way to legally house more inmates.
Steinberg and Senate Democrats say they will present their own prison plan on Wednesday for the federal judges to consider.
For Brown, the fight with federal judges over prison conditions -- health care concerns they say have been exacerbated by the large prison population -- has been an ongoing saga. Earlier this year, he sought to completely end federal court oversight. Through the spring and summer, however, he sought to both delay and divert the chance of releasing more than 9,000 prison inmates.
"Public safety is the priority, and we'll take care of it," he said Tuesday.
John Myers | News10 Political Editor