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How can cash-strapped California comply with Supreme Court ruling on prisons?

Gov. Brown, anticipating the Supreme Court order to California to reduce its prison population, signed a measure transferring inmates to county jails. But voters need to approve funding.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / May 26, 2011

Gov. Jerry Brown outlines his revised budget proposal during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on May 16.

Steve Yeater/AP

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Los Angeles

As California struggles to close its budget gap, officials and analysts are worried the state won’t be able to find the money to finance measures to comply with the US Supreme Court order this week to downsize the state’s prison population by 33,000 inmates.

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As the state’s chief executive, Gov. Jerry Brown is taking the lead on California’s response to the Supreme Court ruling that the overcrowding in state prisons violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-to-4 decision upheld a 2009 ruling by a three-judge panel in California ordering the state to reduce its prison population to 110,000, or 137 percent of capacity.

Anticipating such a ruling, Governor Brown last month signed a measure (AB 109) that would shift thousands of low-level offenders to county jails and other community-based programs and facilities. But the shifts are contingent on voter approval of a constitutional amendment that would pay for moving the prisoners by hiking income, sales, and vehicle taxes.

Brown must file a report in two weeks advising the three-judge panel that originally ruled in the case whether the state has obtained necessary legislative approval for compliance, and file another report in 30 days setting forth the additional funds that counties may require from the state and what steps have been taken to implement a plan.

“Without the funding mechanism we can’t do it,” says Steve Whitmore, chief spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of scores of sheriff’s departments statewide that would be tapped for the transfers. He says L.A. County is still reeling from $128 million in budget cuts that have resulted in the closing of several prison facilities, leaving open about 5,000 empty beds because there is no staff.

Sheriff Lee Baca said publicly on May 23, the day of the Supreme Court ruling, that under Brown’s plan, more than a third of the state’s 33,000 prisoners would be relocated to L.A. County.

L.A. sheriff: Show me the money

“We may be the one county that can’t take that kind of influx,” he said on KCRW’s “To the Point” radio show. Currently, county jails hold about 14,000 inmates, down from a high of 22,000 a few years ago.

“It all boils down to how to pay the $27,000 annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner,” Sheriff Baca said. “I believe the governor knows this, and [the Department of Corrections] knows this, and we are working closely with them so we can get that money.”

Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says other options are available that include electronic surveillance and home detention.

But California’s goal “is not to release inmates at all,” says state corrections secretary Matthew Cate, answering concerns from dissenting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who warned, “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order” and from (separately dissenting) Justice Samuel Alito, who added, “the court’s majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California.”

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