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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.

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Brown’s realignment plan provides that nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex criminal offenders serve time in county jails instead of state prison. Joan Petersilla, a law professor at Stanford and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center in Palo Alto, says local agencies, if properly funded, can supervise and treat such criminals better than the state.

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“With this plan, California will have a less crowded prison system, which would go a long way toward meeting the concerns of federal judges,” Professor Petersilla wrote in an op-ed piece on She notes that California spends nearly $9 billion on corrections annually – about $50,000 per prisoner, more than twice the national average – and that two-thirds of state prisoners are returned to prison within three years, nearly twice the national rate.

“Indeed, a silver lining in California’s budget crisis is that it created a consensus between factions in the 20-year debate over correctional practices in California – that we must both spend more wisely and promote rehabilitation to start closing that revolving prison door.”

Budget cutbacks in recent years have hurt jails at the local level. In 2004, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department began the release of over 300 low-level criminals per day. While the offenders were nonviolent – drunken drivers, shoplifters, car thieves – the early releases stirred controversy over whether the savings in tax dollars was worth what many saw as a threat to public safety. So-called “quality-of-life” crimes began to soar.

“For misdemeanor offenders our system has come to a grinding halt,” Sheriff Baca said at the time. “With thousands being freed after having paid less than 10 percent of their sentence, there simply is no sense of deterrence whatever. This is no way to run a criminal-justice system.”

Brown appeals for public support

Governor Brown has already started making his appeal for public support to fund his measure. In a statement the day of the ruling he said, “We must now secure full and constitutionally guaranteed funding to put into effect all the realignment provisions contained in AB 109. As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”

But some political observers say Brown’s approved realignment plan might meet with severe opposition because of the state’s economic troubles. Officials are still looking to trim $11.4 billion out of a $26.4 billion budget deficit for the current fiscal year.

The realignment plan “solves the immediate problem but passes it off to counties without funding to pick up the burden in jails, social services, or mental health,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

She and other observers note that private prisons, particularly in other states, might relieve some of the burden, but they cost as well.

“[Former] Gov. Schwarzenegger tried this and met with much opposition from [law enforcement professionals] and others and that was when money was not as short as it is now,” Ms. O’Connor says. “This [ruling] is not a surprise. It has been coming, so the bill tried to anticipate it. It is still the worst time possible, fiscally.”


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