By Debra J. Saunders
“It is now time to return the control of our prison system to California,” Gov. Jerry Brown declared at a news conference Tuesday morning.
Amen to that. Federal lawsuits and federal judges have taken over the state’s prison system. Unelected judges don’t have to worry about paying for what they command. Nor need they worry about losing their jobs should they incite the public’s wrath. Thus, judges have ordered massive increases in inmate health and mental health spending. Those orders have driven up the annual cost per inmate to more than $55,000. About $17,000 of that sum goes toward health care.
In 2009, a three-judge panel ordered Sacramento to reduce the population of the state’s 33 adult prisons from 150,000 to 110,000 by June 2013.
The current count is 119,213. Brown believes that number has been reduced enough. “We’ve got hundreds of lawyers wandering around the prisons looking for problems,” Brown railed. Judges assign special masters who spend as if they’ve won the lottery. Judge Thelton Henderson once appointed a health care receiver who threatened to “back up the Brink’s truck” to pay for inmate health care. In his fashion, receiver Robert Sillen meant it. He was paid $775,790 in 15 months, ending in June 2007.
In such a universe, ordering a state prison population to be cut by more than one-fifth might seem like a benign social experiment. But it is not. There aren’t a whole lot of low-level offenders in California prisons. Low-level offenders usually go to county jail if there is room.
The judges’ order was based on a decision to alleviate “overcrowding” — from 188 percent to 137.5 percent of the system’s “design capacity.” Brown, for his part, understands that figure is “somewhat arbitrary.”
Design capacity actually means one person per cell. “That’s like saying your car is overcrowded if you have a passenger in it,” quipped Michael Rushford, president of the tough-on-crime Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “If we said two inmates per cell, boom, we’re not overcrowded anymore.”
In an acute lapse of judgment, the U.S. Supreme Court backed up the three judges in 2010. Brown tried to comply with the federal edict.
Understand: Brown wanted to comply. When he was a talk show host, he called America’s incarceration rates “absolute oppression.” As a Democrat, he would prefer to spend limited tax dollars on public schools, health care for the non-inmate population and higher education.
As governor, Brown pushed through Assembly Bill 109 to implement his “realignment” plan to move “lower-level offenders” and parole violators from costly state prison to county jurisdiction. Now he has local politicians from Fresno and Los Angeles blaming him for releasing repeat offenders into probation, to the detriment of public safety.
Though Brown won’t concede that AB 109 has endangered the public, he does argue that releasing more inmates threatens to do so. To meet the three-judge goal, the state argued in a legal brief, would entail ordering the “early release of inmates serving prison terms for serious and violent felonies.” Including murder.
“It’s Crime Fighter Jerry. He’s going to defend us,” mocked Rushford, who argues Brown should have drawn this line earlier, maybe 10,000 inmates ago.
On the left, Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office thinks Brown is recalcitrant. “The governor has tried this in various other approaches to getting rid of judicial oversight over the years and has pretty much failed. What we would say to the governor is, ‘If you want to get out of these lawsuits, fix the violations.’”
That attitude drives Brown crazy. On the phone Wednesday, Brown told me he had appointed Lawrence Karlton to the state Superior Court before Karlton joined the infamous three-judge federal panel. Brown hires enlightened thinkers. “We have honest, smart, experienced people responding to the most liberal judges in America for not one year (but) many years,” Brown said. “At this point in 2013, the sovereign state of California is capable of operating its own prison system.”
States’ rights? You bet. Enough already of these remote federal judges and their edicts. You remember the definition of a conservative — a liberal who’s been mugged. In this case, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges are treating the liberal Brown like a conservative, and he’s reacting like one.
Root for Brown. If the three judges succeed in releasing 9,000 serious offenders, there will be more victims of serious crimes.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org