Brown moves to shift Calif. inmates to local jails - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Brown moves to shift Calif. inmates to local jails

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Money is the key ingredient that will decide whether California can meet the dictates of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to slash its prison population by 33,000 inmates within two years, sheriffs, police chiefs, counties and corrections officials said Tuesday.

But questions abound on whether the Legislature will sign off on tax extensions to pay for shifting thousands of convicts from state prisons to local jails, whether voters will approve the taxes, whether the state can meet the deadlines set by the high court and how the shift will play out at local jails around the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration said Tuesday the governor's stalled "realignment" plan to shift thousands of inmates to local jails will eventually relieve inmate overcrowding, as the court ordered. But officials acknowledged they need state lawmakers' support and might not meet the court's initial goal of cutting the prison population by more than 10,000 inmates by Nov. 24.

The state, however, did not request a delay from the courts.

"What we've said is we're going to move forward with this plan, and we'll ask for more time if we need it," Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said at a news conference.

The latest count shows California's 33 prisons are holding 143,565 inmates in space designed for fewer than 80,000, meaning the prisons are at 180 percent of their design capacity.

In an order late last month, the Supreme Court gave California two years to remove more than 33,000 inmates after the justices ruled easing congestion is the only way to improve unconstitutionally poor inmate medical and mental health care. The Supreme Court upheld an order by a three-judge panel overseeing the prison crowding lawsuits against the state.

The administration's response outlined all the steps the state has taken in recent years to reduce its prison population, including sending about 10,000 inmates to other states. But its compliance with the recent order hinges almost entirely on realignment plans that Brown signed into law in April to shift responsibility for thousands of lower-level inmates to counties.

The shift cannot take effect unless local governments get the money to provide jail cells and rehabilitation services, and funding for that remains stalled in the state Legislature. Republican lawmakers have blocked Brown's proposal for an extension of temporary tax increases that are set to expire by the end of this month.

Renewing the recent increases in the vehicle, sales and personal income taxes is essential to funding Brown's plan to shift low-level offenders to county jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court had indicated it might consider a request for a delay in its order, which includes benchmarks in reducing overcrowding along the way, but Cate said it was too soon for that.

"It would be irresponsible to say we're going to do nothing, go back to the same three judges and cross our fingers," Cate said.

The Brown administration has won considerable support from law enforcement and local government for the realignment plan, provided the money is in place.

"We've got to have the money," said Steven Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. "Without the money it becomes a significant challenge."

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare restated the GOP argument that realignment puts the public at risk and is fiscally irresponsible because it uses temporary taxes to pay for a permanent change in the way prisoners are held.

"We can address the long-term prison population problem by building more beds with funding that is currently available and meet the short-term needs by contracting with in-state and out-of-state facilities," she said.

Brown's May revised budget proposal includes nearly $1 billion from extended sales taxes and vehicle license fees to cover state and local costs of shifting low-level offenders and parole violators from prisons to local jurisdictions.

Brown has insisted that any tax extensions be approved by voters, even though the same number of votes would be needed to extend the taxes in the Legislature as would be needed to put them on the ballot. Some fear work on realignment would begin and voters would reject the tax extensions.

"We expect the voters to agree to it" when they hear all the arguments, Cate said. "The governor has told the sheriffs we'll find a way to fund this. You have to."

But cash is just the most pressing issue on realignment.

"Nobody knows how many prisoners it's going to be, when it's going to happen, or how much they're going to pay us to do their job," said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesman for Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern. The county already houses about 500 prisoners under contract for the state, Nelson said, but no one knows what terms would govern the new prisoner transfers, he said.

Associations representing California counties and the state's police chiefs voiced continued support for Brown's plan, assuming the necessary funding is made available.

"The Governor's plan for realignment can work ... if it's funded," said Dave Maggard, president of the California Police Chiefs' Association.

The Supreme Court ruling "made funding realignment absolutely essential and urgent," he said. "We hope that the Legislature agrees with us and will act quickly."

"What we heard today was pretty much in line with what we expected," said Erin Treadwell, spokeswoman for the California State Association of Counties. "Realignment is the most logical choice as far as how to deal with (the court order). We need to get that to the public for a vote as quickly as possible."

The receiver appointed to oversee health care in the prisons also called on the Legislature to approve funding, both for realignment and for construction of more prison space.

"We have well-defined and prudent plans to continue work in meeting the court mandate to reduce the population and improve inmate health care, which includes adding much-needed capacity through construction of health care facilities, renovation of existing institutions and the Governor's realignment plan," receiver J. Clark Kelso said in a statement. "I will continue to work collaboratively with state and legislative leadership to resolve the issues we face, but the time to make those tough decisions is now."

Nick Warner, legislative director of the California State Sheriffs' Association, said he hadn't seen the state's response to the court and could not immediately comment.

___

Associated Press writers Don Thompson and Juliet Williams contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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