Dan Walters: With California prison overcrowding, Jerry Brown still traversing a minefield

dwalters@sacbee.comJanuary 9, 2013 

Jerry Brown knows firsthand that crime is a political minefield.

During his first governorship three decades ago, with crime rates and public anger on the rise, he signed many lock-'em-up crime bills and launched what later became a massive prison construction program. But he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982 due, in part, to his unpopular opposition to capital punishment.

Later, as mayor of crime-stricken Oakland and attorney general, Brown confronted the public's contradictory and ever-changing, attitudes about crime and punishment.

"Everybody wants to send people to prison, (but) nobody wants to pay for it," Brown observed – accurately – on Tuesday as he once again picked his way through the minefield.

The occasion was Brown's declaration that the state, in response to numerous lawsuits and federal court rulings, had gone far enough in reducing overcrowding in the state's prisons and improving inmate health care and wants "very intrusive" federal supervision to end.

He filed paperwork with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to that effect, even though the state has fallen a bit short of reducing the inmate population to the level spelled out in court orders, warning that further reductions could be achieved only by releasing dangerous inmates from custody.

So far, the state has reduced inmates by diverting newly sentenced, low-level felons from prisons into county jails and local probation through a state-financed program called realignment.

However, some local law enforcement officials are complaining that making room in local jails for felons means that more misdemeanor offenders are being released, thereby bumping up local crime. And prisoner rights groups are complaining that the state hasn't gone far enough in prison reform.

Brown rejected both complaints, contending that the "middle path" he's taken is "very sound" and that he will defend it back into the Supreme Court, if required.

"I have found a middle path that's the best I can figure," he told reporters, suggesting that the local police officials are trying to shift the onus for crime spikes to the state and that prison rights lawyers are just feathering their nests.

"We have enough money in the criminal justice system," Brown said, adding, "We're wasting a lot of money on nonsense."

Brown's position appears to be reasonable but is nevertheless steeped in irony, given his long experience with the issue.

In his first governorship, he enthusiastically embraced what became a torrent of tough-on-crime decrees that increased the prison population eightfold and even overwhelmed the huge prison expansion program he also started.

In that sense, perhaps, it's fitting that he finds himself, by dint of federal law, having to clean up the prison mess.

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