Inmates eat dinner at the state prison in Lancaster. The November benchmark… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Sacramento -- California is in danger of violating the first court-ordered deadline for cutting its prison population unless lawmakers pass Gov. Jerry Brown's tax plan, state officials said Tuesday.
Corrections chief Matthew Cate said the state must immediately begin overhauling the prison system to meet a November deadline to lower its head count by more than 10,000 inmates. But without funding from the Legislature for Brown's proposal to shift responsibility for some prisoners to county jurisdictions, the state cannot take action, he said.
If the state finds itself with no money and no viable backup plan, the courts have the authority to order felons released, Cate said. "We are out of time and out of room," he said. Without the funding, "we're in trouble."
The November benchmark is the first of four that were set in motion late last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling requiring the state to shed about 33,000 inmates over the next two years because of severe overcrowding.
Brown wants the state to pay counties to house low-level offenders in jails rather than state prisons, but his plan depends on the renewal of sales and vehicle tax increases that are set to expire July 1. The governor and lawmakers are still trying to hammer out a deal on the levies.
"If we don't get the taxes, we will have serious problems with our criminal justice system," Brown said Tuesday after corrections officials filed a progress report with the court. "The state will suffer."
Last week Brown said he might request more time to comply with the overcrowding order, a move the courts have signaled they would be open to, but so far he has not. Instead, it appears, the Brown administration is using the potential threat to public safety to pressure Republican legislators into voting for his proposed tax extensions.
Republicans were quick to call Brown's approach irresponsible. The state's plan to comply with the high court order "should not be based on the hope and prayer that the voters will tax themselves," said state Sen. Sharon Runner of Lancaster.
Accusing Brown of relying on "scare tactics," Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare said the state should build more prisons and ship more inmates outside California.
Both of those options are on the table, Cate said, but neither would do as much to reduce the state's soaring recidivism rate — a prime cause of overcrowding — as keeping nonviolent and other low-level offenders in their communities close to education and drug treatment services.
The prison system will also have more space when it no longer has to house tens of thousands of low-level parole violators who return each year for stints of three months or less, Cate said.
Under a plan that California prison officials previously presented to federal judges, the inmate population must drop to 133,016 by Nov. 28, 2011. The state now houses 143,432 inmates, Cate said.
There are two other benchmarks in 2012, with a final drop to 110,000 by May 24, 2013. The prison system was designed to hold just under 80,000 inmates.
Another feature of Brown's plan is building more prison capacity, especially at maximum security institutions, which Cate said house twice as many inmates as intended.
Another possibility is the early release and deportation of prisoners who were in the country illegally when they committed their crimes. There are 16,717 such inmates.
"That's something we'll have to look at," Cate said.
Few people with knowledge of the prison case expect a wholesale release of felons onto California streets.
"No court is going to say, 'Swing open the gates of prison and let the most dangerous inmates go free,' " said Rebekah Evenson, a staff attorney for the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which argued the overcrowding case on behalf of inmates.
Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.