Gov. Jerry Brown's prison pitch is anything but reform

A long-term solution would be to incentivize rehabilitation, as a competing proposal from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg suggests

Old Man Brown wants the feds to stay off California’s lawn.

So much so that Gov. Jerry Brown is flouting the spirit of a federal three-judge panel’s ruling to shrink the state’s packed prisons to 137.5 percent of their design capacity.

In 2009, the panel agreed with incarcerated plaintiffs, who said their sardine-canlike conditions prevented them from accessing adequate—and constitutionally mandated—health care. But the ruling’s subtext was that California’s insane criminal-justice policies—mandatory-sentencing guidelines, such as three strikes and a law that makes 14-year-olds eligible for life sentences—turned this Golden State into a veritable penal colony.

At the time of the ruling, California’s 33 prisons were triple-bunked with roughly 168,000 inmates. After some carping about states’ rights, Brown muscled through a prison-realignment plan that shifted tens of thousands of low-level offenders to the counties from which they came, beginning in October 2011. The logic was (and still is) that local communities are where true rehabilitation occurs.

But that was just a bullshit selling point. While the state bribed its counties with $2.2 billion and counting, it doesn’t track how the money is spent or penalize counties that don’t invest in rehabilitation. For instance, tiny Kings County in the Central Valley shipped more convicts to state prison than any other before realignment. Of the roughly $9 million it’s received from realignment the past two years, zero dollars went to evidence-based rehab programs. Zero.

Many other counties followed suit, albeit not as brazenly. Of the nearly $46 million Sacramento County spent, for instance, only $1.7 million found its way to community groups, and only after laundering through various justice departments first. No rehab organizations received direct funding.

Maybe that’s why the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation projects that, even with so-called reforms, the prison population will only grow. California is over its federal cap by about 7,000 inmates today and is projected to have 14,000 too many prisoners by 2017.

The governor proposes dealing with this shameful trend by outsourcing nearly 10,000 inmates to private, for-profit facilities. Under his plan, the state would spend $315 million this year to scatter some 9,600 inmates across institutions owned by Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group Inc., two major penitentiary contractors.

It’s the equivalent of a mother telling her son to clean up his room for the third time, and the little brat responds by stuffing his toys into his buddy’s closet.

Brown’s plan also amounts to a fat jobs bill for the prison-guards union, which would get the contract to staff the private prison in Kern County. As with past strategies, the Legislature is on an accelerated track to ram this “reform” through by next week.

“The governor’s plan does not contemplate a long-term solution,” observed Tor Tarantola, a fiscal and policy analyst at the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

A long-term solution would be to incentivize rehabilitation, as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s competing proposal suggests; invest in re-entry services, as Capt. Milo Fitch does at his Elk Grove jail; return judges’ sentencing discretion with reforms like last year’s Proposition 36; create alternative-housing systems for addiction and mental health; and expand a sentencing-review process for low-risk inmates, as local reformer Eugene Dey advocates.

“Bringing those absolute numbers down based on exemplary behavior is the humane way to reform the system, not send even more offenders out of state,” said Dey, a former three-striker. “That’s insane.”

But true reform means giving up the poor, brown, undereducated masses that have become this state’s unofficial currency. The governor’s plan just wants to slip the yolk of federal receivership, so we can go back to depositing people like dollars.

That’s a dismal goal to pursue, but it’s fast becoming California’s true legacy. Forget gold rushes, screen idols and tech booms. This is where slavery made its comeback.