Capitol Democrats ratchet up prison plan infighting

3:57 PM, Sep 4, 2013   |    comments
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If the state Capitol's conventional wisdom is right -- namely, that Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate Democrats will resolve their fight over prisons by the time lawmakers leave next week -- then they're going to have to walk back some rhetoric that's getting more nasty by the day.

After a long hearing on Wednesday, the Senate's budget committee approved an alternative to the prison population plan pushed by Brown -- a plan that would spend less than that of the governor while relying on a settlement of the state's long legal fight on prison overcrowding.

Brown apparently wasn't very happy about that.

"The plan approved by the Senate Budget Committee," said the governor in an emailed statement, "is an inmate release plan by another name, totally dependent on an illusory legal settlement."

Releasing thousands of inmates; as the old saying goes, them's fighting words.

The verbal jousting comes as a new analysis points out pitfalls in the plans of both the governor and Senate Democrats.  The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office concludes that Brown's plan will only lower the prison population below the court-ordered level of about 109,000 inmates through early 2016.  After that, the state's prisons would be oversold by more than 8,000 inmates, say analysts.

Meantime, the LAO report (PDF) concludes that the Senate Democratic plan would have to result in one of every five projected inmates not being sent to prison by the 2014-15 fiscal year -- about 7,000 fewer inmates -- in order to lower the prison population to a level demanded by federal judges.  And that's assuming those judges agree to a three year delay.

For several senators, though, it's the idea of spending more money on a temporary fix that seems to be the crux of their angst.

"We have put enormous sums of money into a system of corrections that has truly failed its people," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.

Democrats also suggested the governor's plan should be viewed as the backup -- a "solid plan B," as it was called by Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona -- to their own proposal.

And it was the leader of Senate Democrats who wondered aloud why the state would spend some $715 million over the next two years without first trying to settle its differences with attorneys representing the inmates who sued over prison conditions more than a decade ago.

"I mean there's no excuse for not trying," said a seemingly exasperated Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.  "That's my problem: $715 million without trying."

The governor responded in his emailed statement: 

"I will not turn over our criminal justice system to lawyers who operate at the behest of their inmate clients, and not the people, whose interests we are sworn to uphold."

Even with all of the barbs and brickbats, the bottom line may be money.  Brown administration officials told the Senate committee that the $315 million price tag in the current budget year to ship out inmates is likely on the high side.  That could be a key discussion point with Senate Democrats, whose own plan would cost $200 million over the same time period.

Republicans, even in the midst of the Democratic infighting, criticized delays in authorized spending for prison construction over the last several years.  GOP legislators in both houses support the governor's plan.

It's unclear whether the two competing prison plans will be put up for formal votes, or whether a compromise will start to be hammered out in private negotiations.  Regardless, all sides assume a decision of some sort before the Legislature packs its bags and wraps up work for the year on Sept. 13.


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