Dueling Prison Plans

Two Competing Strategies Offered to Reduce Inmate Population

After 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam voiced his faith that the State of California understands Santa Barbara’s needs for additional jail space at Tuesday’s board meeting, liberal 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal quipped at his conservative colleague, “It’s great to see your confidence in the state government. It’s very refreshing.” With a federal court breathing down California’s neck to remove 9,600 inmates from its prison system, however, it’s hard to ignore that the burden of overcrowding is shifting to county jails.

This week, Governor Jerry Brown (backed by Assembly Speaker John Perez) and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg unveiled competing plans to reduce the state prison population. The governor’s plan would shift the prisoners to privately run facilities — some of them out of state — and cost $315 million the first year and $415 million each of the following two years. Most importantly for those concerned about public safety, the governor’s plan would keep inmates from being released early. Steinberg’s plan calls for a $200 million annual expenditure on rehabilitation and mental health services in order to shrink the prison population. It is contingent on the agreement of inmates’ lawyers and a three-judge panel to offer a three-year delay in enforcing its order to release prisoners.

While Santa Barbara’s Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson is all-in on Steinberg’s plan, Assemblymember Das Williams said he’d like to see both sides talk. He said his two priorities are that no prisoners are released early — especially because most nonviolent nonsexual offenders are already out — and that it is cost effective. He said the governor’s proposal is strong on the former and Steinberg’s is strong on the latter.

Steinberg’s bill, said Jackson, “does not release a single prisoner early. It puts money into programs that are focused in the community that are known to improve public safety by incentivizing counties to … address the needs of people to become trained for employment, deal with substance abuse, mental health issues, and life skills, which have been proven in the past to reduce the recidivism rate.” Jackson and Williams both agree that the lawsuit that provoked the population-reduction orders are stealing money from schools. “Every dollar that is spent on this is a theft from our educational system, our health-care system, and everything else we hold dear,” said Williams. If Jerry Brown’s plan were to gain legislative approval, the state would spend more on prisons than on higher education this fiscal year.

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