California lawmakers reach deal to reduce prison crowding

Sharon Bernstein
An inmate stands in his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana
An inmate stands in his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers on Monday reached a deal to ease overcrowding in the state's prison system by boosting spending on services intended to keep inmates from committing new crimes after their release.

The deal is an effort to comply with a court order to either increase inmate capacity in the 34-prison system or release about 8,000 inmates early, and would only go into effect if a panel of federal judges agreed to extend their deadline to reduce overcrowding by the year's end.

Brown said the increased spending on rehabilitation and mental health services, intended to reduce inmate recidivism, could spare the state from spending $730 million over two years to place inmates in a combination of private prisons, county jails and out-of-state lockups.

The new deal could result in the state spending up to $400 million over two years on inmate services that state officials argued could over time reduce the prison population, which currently stands at about 120,000, according to a spokesman for State Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg.

The order to reduce crowding is just one of several problems facing the state prison system. A summer hunger strike over the state's solitary confinement policies drew 30,000 participants at its peak, lasting nearly eight weeks before finally drawing to a close September 5.

After months of arguing that the judges' order to release inmates to reduce crowding was dangerous and unnecessary, Brown two weeks ago proposed placing the inmates in a combination of private prisons, county jails and out-of-state lockups.

Progressive Democrats in the state senate threatened to block that plan, saying the state should spend the money instead on rehabilitation and mental health services.

The new plan, Brown told a press conference, "is a lot more balanced" than the old one.

Steinberg, who had led the opposition to the governor's original plan, said he knew there was a risk that the judges would not grant an extension of their order.

"We are taking a risk, but it is a very good risk," he said. "Because we know that everybody, including the court, wants a long-term solution."

If the court does not grant the extension, the state will revert to Brown's original plan of spending $315 million next year and $415 million the following year to lease beds for California prisoners from other jurisdictions and private prisons.

Legislative Republican leaders also signed on to the plan, saying they were pleased that under both alternatives inmates would not be released early simply to ease overcrowding.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Eric Walsh)