California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Tuesday announced a $315 million plan to expand the state prison system’s capacity by thousands of beds, allowing the state to comply with a federal court order to sharply reduce the population of its overcrowded facilities by the end of the year.
Under the governor’s plan, the state would move some 12,000 inmates from overcrowded state prisons into private prisons and county jails. During a press conference in Sacramento on Tuesday, Brown portrayed the plan as necessary to ensure “public safety,” noting that it would allow California to meet the court requirements without releasing prisoners.
But critics say the cost of Brown's expansion is likely to sap much-needed funds from schools and social service agencies. They insist the state could release thousands of low-level prisoners without endangering the public.
“The governor’s proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope,” state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D), the Senate president pro tem, said in a statement. “As the population of California grows, it's only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the court demands mass releases again."
California's prison system is one of the largest and most crowded in the country. The governor’s plan, which still needs legislative approval, would create enough space to comply with a 2009 order by a panel of federal judges, who ruled that overcrowding was jeopardizing the health and safety of inmates. The order, which the U.S. Supreme Court this month refused to review, gives the state until Dec. 31 to reduce the population of its facilities by about 10,000 inmates.
In an unconventional move, private prisons targeted for the expansion would be staffed with state employees, an arrangement that would allow the governor and his allies in the legislature to avoid a politically risky confrontation with the state’s powerful prison guard union.
Criminal justice and anti-poverty advocates in California say the state should comply with the court order by expanding parole for the elderly and people with terminal illnesses, among other strategies. "There are states around the country that are closing prisons and we hope that California will follow that track," said Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
Brown, at the press conference, disputed the wisdom of releasing any prisoners before their terms are up.
"It's not prudent,” he said. “It's not consistent with public safety or the orderly administration of justice.”