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Judges order California to come up with prison solution

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) discusses his budget proposal at the state capitol last week (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

After months of extensions that failed to resolve a dispute over conditions in state prisons, a panel of federal judges has given California officials just a week to come up with plans to reduce prison overcrowding.

The judges gave Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and attorneys representing inmates until Jan. 23 to propose plans to comply with earlier court orders to limit prison population. The plans are scheduled to go into effect on April 18.

Brown has asked the judges to delay population limits for three years; his budget proposal, released last week, assumes a delay of at least two years, though Brown was careful to point out that the state has the money to pay for private prison beds if that delay wasn’t granted.

If the judges stick with the April deadline, California could be forced to spend millions to house prisoners at private facilities, both inside and out of the state. In October, California began transferring 2,100 inmates to private facilities within the state’s borders.

Brown’s proposed budget includes $500 million for new prison facilities aimed at reducing overcrowding in existing prisons. It also includes $200 million for programs to reduce recidivism rates, programs state lawmakers believe will hold the key to a long-term reduction in prison populations.

In an interview after releasing the budget proposal last week, Brown said his administration is working with local governments and nonprofit groups to decrease recidivism rates. But balancing public safety with prison reduction remains one of the governor’s top priorities.

“The judges are hammering us to reduce our prison population, and of course the problem is not just to reduce the prison population, it’s to keep people from committing crimes,” Brown said.

“People do bad things. The solution is not to have any bad people, to just everybody be good. But that’s probably not going to happen,” Brown added. “In a very decentralized way, we’ve set in motion funding and policy incentives to deal with people who do bad things for various reasons and try to help them out, instead of just locking them up.”

But releasing some offenders early will be a part of the population reduction program. Brown’s budget proposes to release elderly inmates, and to expand the number of repeat offenders who could be eligible for parole. That would make about 2,200 inmates eligible for parole, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.



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