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Brown Wants To Cut Prison Population by a Fifth

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, May 08, 2011

How small is the California prison population likely to become if Gov. Jerry Brown has his way? In three years, California's prison population would be 20 percent smaller.

When we chatted on the phone on the issue last week -- always an experience -- Brown sounded more like his old self, a left-wing talk-show host of the 1990s, than the tough-on-crime Oakland mayor and state attorney general who followed.

There are always two Jerry Browns. There's the talk-show Brown who likened American incarceration rates to "absolute oppression." A decade later, Attorney General Brown fought three federal judges, who ordered California to release 37,000 to 58,000 inmates to relieve overcrowding, because the judicial panel "does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed."

Now as governor, he has signed a bill to transfer some 37,000 inmates -- felons convicted of nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex crimes -- to local jurisdictions over three years. The move should save boatloads of money, as jail beds cost about half the $50,000 annual tab per state prison inmate. "Low-level offenders" also could be diverted to community programs, parole or home detention. Critics call it a get-out-of-jail-free card.

For the 47,000 inmates serving fewer than 90 days last year (they violated parole or have served a chunk of their time in jail), the current system makes no sense. As Brown noted, "all these damn lawsuits" require expensive medical, dental and psych evaluations whenever inmates are admitted, even for short stays.

Brown also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a ruling "any day" that forces the state to release inmates to relieve overcrowding as per the three judges -- an odd pronouncement from the state's erstwhile lawyer. I think he's wrong. Recent big-bench decisions have steamrolled over federal judges' intrusions into state justice policy.

As always happens, Brown is amazed that I don't see that his plan is "conservative." "This represents the best thinking of people in penology," he explains -- and an end to what he calls wasteful "$50,000 scholarships."

On the short-timers, he is right, but he should have stopped there and not attempted to throw all "low level" felons to the counties as well. When Brown starts talking about incarceration rates in Europe and arguing that "local people" are more "in touch" with offenders, I think of San Francisco -- the city that flew drug offenders to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to help them evade federal immigration authorities in 2008. I think about the 40 crimes -- including felony domestic violence, assaulting a police officer, solicitation for murder and human trafficking -- left out of an earlier version of the bill.

Brown notes that local law enforcement supports the plan. Of course, they do. They're starving for money.

Brown promises that there will be "no realignment unless money follows it." (He doesn't have the money yet because his tax-extension proposal didn't qualify for the June ballot, but he's working on it.)

In the last five years, changes in the parole system have reduced the number of state prison inmates by 11,000 in five years. Criminal Justice Legal Foundation President Michael Rushford sees a link between California's tough sentencing system and its low crime rate. He predicts that the state's next crime report "is going to be a little higher," and next year, "a lot higher."

Maybe Rushford's wrong. Maybe he's right. The question is, to paraphrase not Brown, but Dirty Harry: Do you feel lucky?

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