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Jerry Brown offers early releases, private prisons to ease crowding

May 03, 2013|By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol in January. The governor's office submitted a proposal late Thursday to further reduce crowding in the state's prisons.
California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his State of the State address at the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Jerry Brown's office late Thursday produced a court-ordered plan to reduce prison crowding that includes the early release of elderly inmates and the relocation of thousands of offenders to private lockups or state fire camps, among other measures.

Brown said in his filing that he would also ask the Legislature to allow hundreds of prisoners who earn time-off credit for good conduct to be freed early, along with about 400 "low-risk" inmates who are elderly or medically frail.

He will also seek funding to lease 1,600 private prison beds.

The governor submitted the plan after judges threatened him with contempt of court if he continued to delay orders to meet an inmate population cap.

Brown has reduced inmate numbers since October 2011, partly by keeping some low-level offenders in county custody rather than sending them to state lockups. But the state still has more than 9,000 prisoners too many to satisfy the courts, and it is unclear whether the governor’s new proposals would remove all of them.

In the court papers, Brown repeated an earlier contention that by lowering the prison population by 43,000 inmates in six years, the state needs to do nothing more.

“California has already achieved a durable remedy,” he argued.

The governor’s filing makes clear that he has little taste for even his own latest recommendations. He will take the “unusual step" of drafting legislation he believes would "jeopardize public safety" and present it to lawmakers to consider, the document says.

State prisons head Jeffrey Beard said in an accompanying declaration that officials prefer not to take any steps beyond completion of some new housing construction set to add 2,800 beds in Stockton and sending an additional 1,250 inmates to state camps for conservation work and fighting wildfires.

Previously, the state had argued that prison population reductions had depleted the number of low-risk inmates available for duty in such minimum-security settings.

Civil rights advocates had hoped for more from Brown on Thursday.

“The governor's latest filing proposes some good ideas” for the short term, said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice policy for the ACLU of California, in a statement. “But it's simply not enough."

The organization seeks changes in criminal penalties to reduce the number of offenders headed to prison in the first place.

Brown plans to appeal the population cap to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has hired lawyers in Washington, D.C., to review the case.

Humane conditions are at the heart of the order to ease crowding. Prisoners' lawyers argued, and the courts agreed, that California was providing unconstitutionally poor medical and mental healthcare in facilities packed far beyond their designed capacity.

Complicating Brown’s problems, the court’s monitor for the correctional system’s medical services directed Brown this week to move about 3,200 inmates out of two prisons afflicted with valley fever.

The state has a May 6 deadline to answer a motion proposing that the court enforce the relocation directive.

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paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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