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Democrats trade jabs over looming prison problem

9:40 PM, Aug 28, 2013   |    comments
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So maybe this week's fight at the state Capitol over prisons isn't the first between Democrats since they grabbed all the levers of power.

After all, there was the brief 2011 tiff over the state budget, when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Legislature's initial spending plan.  But that fight mostly came off like a friendly debate and hardly registered a jiggle on the political seismograph. 

This fight, over both an immediate solution to the threat of a mass prisoner release and the state's larger criminal justice problems, seems more serious, an actual political temblor. 

And so, two weeks before the Legislature is scheduled to recess for the year, and four months before a court-imposed deadline to shrink the prison population, the state's leading Democrats are throwing some intra-party punches in full public view.

"Do we spend precious taxpayer dollars on the same tired proposals?" Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, asked during Wednesday morning's news conference.

Those "tired" proposals were ones offered just 20 hours earlier... by Brown.

Brown, along with the Assembly speaker, both Republican legislative leaders, and a passel of local officials touted a plan that would spend $315 million now, some $1.1 billion over three years, to offload about 8,000 inmates to private and local lockups and out of California's still overpopulated prisons.

Steinberg not only disagreed, he and his staff still didn't even know the governor's event going to happen when word began to spread Tuesday morning around the Capitol.

And so Steinberg, a politician with a reputation more for collegiality than confrontation, nonetheless decided to take Brown and Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, to task for their effort to satisfy the judges who have dominated California prison policy for most of the past decade.

A sampling of Steinberg's critiques (VIDEO)

Note, for the record, that when Steinberg pointed in the direction of the cameras about how he'd done more to back the governor than "any other legislative leader," he was pointing directly across the Capitol rotunda towards the offices of Speaker Pérez.

Make of that what you will.

Surrounded by his fellow Senate Democrats, Steinberg laid out not only a plan he argues is a more systemic prison fix than the one offered by Brown, but he hinted he already knew the reaction from the attorneys who represent the inmates that brought the first prison lawsuits against the state years ago.

Almost as if on cue, the email landed on reporter smartphones in the Capitol hallway.

'Senator Steinberg's substantive proposals are acceptable to us," said the statement from plaintiff's attorney Don Specter.  "His solution demonstrates that the state can achieve a real, sustainable approach to safely reducing and managing the inmate population without further federal intervention and wasteful spending on more prisons."

The plan from Steinberg and Senate Democrats hinges on the buy-in from the prisoner plaintiffs in hopes of persuading the panel of federal judges to give the state three years to sufficiently reduce the prison population on its own.

And Brown? Well, the governor shot down the idea before lunchtime Wednesday.

"It would not be responsible to turn over California's criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people," said Brown in a prepared statement.

(The governor later ducked through Capitol hallways to avoid a group of reporters who hoped to get a better sense of his concerns.)

The leader of the Legislature's lower house took aim at the same part of the Senate plan: a proposed panel with members appointed by the governor and the plaintiff inmates who could set a new limit on the size of the prison population.

"I am deeply skeptical about Senator Steinberg's approach that gives prisoner plaintiffs who favor mass release of prisoners the power to set our prison population," said the speaker in a written statement.

Steinberg suggested -- actually, flat out said -- the governor hasn't done enough to work with the plaintiffs to make the lawsuit go away.

"He's not sitting down with the plaintiffs trying to work this out," said the Senate leader of Brown.  "And he must, before we would ever consider spending this kind of public money."

Where the prison debate goes next in the Capitol over the final hours of the 2013 legislative calendar is unclear.  Assembly Democrats will convene the first hearing on Brown's bipartisan plan on Thursday; Senate Democrats will hold a hearing on their alternative next week.

Neither plan, in the early going, looks to have enough support to clear the Capitol.  Democrats are far from being on the same page. And by week's end, the state will be just four months from the deadline imposed by federal courts for a smaller population of prison inmates.

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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