By Daniel Weintraub
Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday that California’s prison system, under pressure from the courts, has focused on turning inmates into “the healthiest damn criminals in the world” but has done little to make them less likely to commit another crime after they leave custody.
County sheriffs, probation officers and others at the local level could do a much better job if given the funding and the authority to supervise low-level offenders and try to rehabilitate them, Brown said.
The Democratic governor, speaking to a gathering of 500 local law enforcement officials, heralded the Oct. 1 beginning of a new program to shift responsibility for 34,000 inmates from the state to the counties.
“This does put the problem closer to where people are,” he said. “When people commit a crime, they have a family and they have a neighborhood and there’s a history there.”
If they are sent to state prison, even for a short time, he said, they disappear into a system that operates under the authority of 19 separate court orders, with hundreds of overseers walking the grounds, “taking notes” and then going back to courts to force the state to change its policies. The biggest of them all was a recent order from the US Supreme Court requiring the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates by 2013.
“We have lots of cooks in the kitchen,” Brown said. “We are running an ongoing legal experiment without precedent.”
Brown said all of those orders have resulted in the most expensive prison system in the world, one that is mandated to give inmates health care, dental care, mental health counseling and other support but does not focus enough on changing what they will do once they leave custody.
“The goal up to now has been not to try to change the lives of the criminal, but to make sure they are the healthiest damn criminals in the world,” he said. “That they live longer, they run faster, and they shoot straighter. That’s been the game plan. We are going to move beyond that. We are going to start focusing on what will work.”
County officials have been working with Brown since January to craft a plan that will help the state relieve prison overcrowding while giving local officials the tools they need to handle more inmates. The process will be gradual, with only new inmates going to county jails while felons now in state prison complete their sentences there.
While some local officials fear their jurisdictions will be overwhelmed by the new responsibilities, others have welcomed the challenge.
“It’s our belief that with adequate funding, constitutionally protected funding, we can get the job done and do it better than the state of California,” said Riverside County Supervisor John F. Tavaglione, president of the California State Association of Counties.
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said the shift, known in the Capitol as “realignment” will be a “tall order.” But he said ultimately the counties are up to the task.
Each county’s Community Corrections Plan will reflect the goal of reducing recidivism, he said, “which we believe can be done better at the local level. Not to be critical or adversarial with our state counterparts, but that’s just the way it is.”
One critical issue, though, will be money. The state is shifting billions of dollars to the counties to pay for their new obligations, but as of now there is no guarantee that that money will keep flowing. Brown has promised that he will not go back on his commitment, but he agrees with county officials that the money needs to be locked in by a change to the state constitution.
“I’m not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee,” he said.