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UPDATED: Calif. Gov. Proposes Prison Expansion, Privatization To Avoid Prisoner Early Release

Matt Stroud

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California’s prison situation has been dire for a long time. In the wake of mismanagement, years of overcrowding, and a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring that California’s prisoner housing circumstances lead to needless suffering and death,” the state has been under pressure to either offer early release to thousands of California prisoners or come up with another solution. Last night, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown opted for the latter. 

From the Los Angeles Times:

Gov. Jerry Brown and top lawmakers pledged Tuesday to ease prison crowding without releasing inmates early, laying out a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for alternate housing. 

The proposal, which has divided Democratic leaders, would pay for enough beds in privately owned prisons and other facilities to shed more than 9,600 inmates from state lockups by the end of the year, as federal judges have ordered. 

This is the sensible, prudent way to proceed,” Brown said at a Capitol news conference. The plan is to find as many cells as needed.” 

Paying for the extra housing would drain $315 million from the state’s $1.1-billion reserve over the next year. The price tag is expected to increase to $415 million for each of the following two years. 

The proposal would avoid inmate releases while Brown continues fighting the order to reduce the population in state prisons, which the judges say are unconstitutionally crowded. Plans his administration previously considered could have forced the state to free about 1,000 inmates before their sentences were finished.

I won’t belabor concerns many have about outsourcing prisoners to the private prison industry. (Briefly: private prisons have been shown to offer no cost savings over state-run facilities, and to attract non-union employees at relatively low wages who fail to keep violence in check. Just ask Mike McIntosh.) But an unrelated Associated Press story out of Illinois brings Gov. Brown’s broader concerns about early release into question as well. From the AP:

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that a Decatur murder charge against a man released early from prison is among only a small number of problems in a new state good-behavior release program. 

Of 1,600 inmates sent home early since March, only 20 violated parole and were reincarcerated. That’s just more than 1 percent. 

The Department of Corrections hasn’t answered an AP inquiry about why the other parolees were locked back up. 

Joshua A. Jones was released five months early in May after serving a sentence on drug charges. He’s charged with murder in an Aug. 17 shooting. He’s currently in the Macon County jail. 

Gov. Pat Quinn halted a previous early-release program for three years after a 2009 scandal involving the quiet release of hundreds of violent inmates.

Maybe it’s time both Gov. Brown and Gov. Quinn did some policy rethinking based on facts rather than scare tactics.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times weighed in again on these issues over the weekend – first with a piece about the intraparty squabble” over how to spend California’s prison budget, and more importantly with a piece regarding The truth about early release.’” From the latter:

Californians should understand that their leaders’ motivation for resisting early release is based at least as much on political as criminological facts. The prison doors will not swing open. There will be no new wave of released felons.

It’s no surprise that politicians are nervous about the term early release.” Brown, a Democrat, faces reelection next year, and former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a Republican, launched his campaign for Brown’s job by criticizing the governor for jeopardizing public safety. That leaves Brown and legislative Democrats eager to emphasize (accurately) that until now they have not released any prison inmates early, and to show that they will not accept any early releases as they go forward, despite the reduction order that results from more than a decade of litigation over prison overcrowding and an unconstitutionally low quality of inmate mental health care and medical care.

But in making their public statements and presenting their plans, Brown and Democratic leaders are failing to point out that felons already leave prison in large numbers and return to their home communities in a consistent, steady flow.


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Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>
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