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Sacramento Update: Reducing Calif. Prison Population

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Aired 9/1/09

What can be done to reduce overcrowding in California prisons? The state Senate and Assembly have been debating the issue over the last couple weeks, and Sacramento insider John Myers updates us on the latest. We also discuss why September 4 could be considered the end of the state's "Summer of Debt."

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Above: The editors discuss prison overcrowding.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Earlier this month, a panel of Federal judges decided not to wait any longer for California to solve its own prison overcrowding issue. The panel ordered the state to cut the prison population by 40,000 inmates within the next two years. Well, now the California legislature has come up with plans to cut the prison population, which they hope will keep dangerous criminals behind bars and won't threaten their own chances of getting reelected. Here to give us an update on the prison reform plan and what else is going on in the state capitol is my guest John Myers, Sacramento Bureau Chief for The California Report. Hi, John.

JOHN MYERS (Sacramento Bureau Chief, The California Report): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Now the State Assembly has just passed that prison reform bill. Tell us what's in it.

MYERS: Well, I think probably the headline and the most important thing is what's not in it. I mean, this is – this was a debate that went on for about a couple of weeks outside of the capitol. Law enforcement groups, a lot of other folks, kind of went after the proposal that was adopted by the State Senate just about eleven days ago. That original proposal, I should say, was also endorsed by the governor. That was a more comprehensive proposal. It was not only designed to save the state money, about $1.2 billion in the current year, which we know is very important. But it reformed the prison system, it made changes in custody for some nonviolent, non-sex offenders, it changed the way that we handed down sentences. You know, it did a lot of different things in addition to saving money. The Assembly version I would call prison reform lite, and that's because the law enforcement groups, in particular, went after some of those changes and there was a lot of talk all around California about, you know, perhaps we were releasing too many people who could be a threat to society. The ideas for a Sentencing Commission, an independent panel of experts to figure out sentences, may not be the right idea. So the Assembly version took all of that out. It basically focused, I would say, on parole issues, which is an important issue about how many people need to be supervised, who's more serious and needs to be supervised more than others, but it saves less money. And I think that's really one of the fundamental problems here. It comes in at about $230 million less of savings for the state that's got to be found somewhere else. So the combination of that, and perhaps it doesn't solve all the state's prison problems, which, as you referred to, are being talked about in court. Those two issues together, really difficult to figure out where you go now and what do you do before the courts come back and say we want a plan for all of the overcrowding…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MYERS: …in California prisons.

CAVANAUGH: Do the – Does the Assembly plan and the Senate plan have to be resolved in some way?

MYERS: Yeah, they've got to be reconciled in some way. The – Because we have two separate versions here.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MYERS: A larger and a smaller version. And the question is, how are they going to get resolved. The leader of the State Senate, President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, released a statement yesterday that said it was a good first step but we need to do more work, and said I want to continue negotiating in the coming weeks with the governor and other lawmakers. Well, the key phrase there, I believe, is 'in the coming weeks.' That doesn't sound like he's about to take the Assembly version up for a vote anytime soon, which means we do have a difficulty about how broad a reform can you enact here. And I want to go back to the federal courts. That three judge panel gave the state a finite amount of time to come up with a plan for reducing overcrowding in the prisons. We're down now to about three weeks left on the original timeframe the court gave the state to come up with something. So we really do have issues going forward here and a lot people wondering will the courts move forward then to order a release of inmates that would, of course, probably be challenged in the United States Supreme Court.

CAVANAUGH: Now either of these plans in the State Senate and the State Assembly, did they have bipartisan support?

MYERS: Bipartisan I guess would be defined as the governor and Democrats in the legislature. That's about as bipartisan as it gets.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

MYERS: There aren't any Republican supporters for either plan, either in the Senate or the Assembly. In the Senate, Republicans said it went way too far and that it really did constitute an early release of prisoners they thought were not people that should be put back into society until they had done their time or paid their debt to society. In the Assembly, they thought even that proposal went too far and that it was too much of an early release. Early release has become the buzz word here, whether or not we are releasing too many people too soon. And the governor supports all of these, and so there's a big difference there with his legislature colleagues in the Republican party. But it doesn’t have to have, technically, and this is the bad part, I guess, for partisanship, it doesn't have to have Republican votes in the state capitol. These are majority vote bills and the Democrats hold a majority in both houses of the legislature. So it's really whether or not the governor and the Democrats can come to an agreement, and right now you've got a disagreement between Democrats in the State Assembly and Democrats in the State Senate, who wanted a much more comprehensive prison reform plan.

CAVANAUGH: So we have a disparity between the strength of these prison reform proposals between the Assembly and the Senate but there's also another issue and that is money. The Senate plan reduced the – It had a $1.2 billion reduction to the prison budget, and that reduction has already been included in the state budget revision that was passed in July. The Assembly plan comes in with less of a reduction, so how do we make up that additional money if the Assembly plan is the one that gets ratified?

MYERS: Yeah, it's a great question, Maureen. It's the $233 million…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

MYERS: …question or so about – about – look at the language of the bills. No one knows that yet. No one has come up with a Plan B for saving that money. And, you know, as we all have been talking about for weeks and weeks on end, the state is incredibly low on cash and has incredible budget problems that have taken all year to resolve. You know, tens of billions of dollars of deficit, and so $230 million in a normal year may not be huge for the state of California, hard for average people to believe, but in this year it's incredibly huge. Just for some context, the budget cuts to the state parks, which will result in the closure of somewhere around 100 state parks, only saves the state $8 million. So if we had to save $8 million by closing parks, where do you get $230 million additional in budget solutions? So, yes, it's a two-pronged problem. It's the overcrowding the prisons and the policy issue, and it is this tremendous budget problem. And I don't see anyone so far that is saying they've got a solution to how to reconcile these two versions that happened in the Assembly yesterday and the Senate about ten days ago.

CAVANAUGH: So if the Assembly and the Senate, if the legislature does not meet this deadline imposed by this federal judges panel, has anyone talked about how releasing inmates from the prisons might actually work?

MYERS: I haven't heard a lot of substantive discussion on that yet and I think the fundamental reason is if, in fact, the three judge panel made that ruling, which is a, as you referenced, a step ahead of where we are…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MYERS: …I think everyone agrees that the State of California would appeal the decision and would appeal it to the United States Supreme Court. And so that would be a very dramatic hearing and I would assume in Washington some time, you know, after the court convenes where you've got a – you've got the United States Supreme Court trying to decide who controls prisons in the State of California, the state government or the feds, considering that at issue here is the United States Constitution and the protection against cruel and unusual punishment. And that's the case: Does it constitute cruel and unusual punishment to have overcrowded prisons. You know, we've got a prison system that was built for about 80,000 people that houses somewhere around 170,000 people right now. So, you know, what steps have to be taken in those instances and who controls it? And so I think that the state would absolutely appeal that decision if it happened, which means we wouldn't have an immediate release of prisoners. It probably would buy lawmakers here in Sacramento a little bit more time. But, again, we don't have any real solutions on the table that seem to have gotten a broad consensus of all the parties.

CAVANAUGH: So the two top priorities for the legislature at this very tumultuous session that they're having has been this prison reform, which they have made some kind of progress, although it's far from resolved, and water issues. Why don't you tell us what they face when it comes to water issues.

MYERS: It doesn't get any easier up here. You go from one tough situation to another. And that also, by the way, you know, assumes that we've already dealt with the state's budget problems, which may come back.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MYERS: But the water issue, you know, we all know water wars in California have been going on for decades and so there's been a long discussion, very pronounced, through the whole administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger about finding some comprehensive solution to the state's water problems, something that deals with water needs in the Central Valley for agriculture, water needs for water to drink in Southern California, and protection, environmental protections, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is where a lot of that water comes through from Northern California to Southern California. And so what we're talking about now is, we're looking at another possible comprehensive package that would deal with all of those. We're apparently going to get some new information later this week on ways to try to come with that. The governor's plan and whether it meets the muster of the legislature which, of course, tremendously powerful interest groups we're talking about here who deal with those issues. You've got the environmental issues, I referenced before, which deal with some species in the Delta and can you protect them with all the pumping of water that goes through the Delta. There's a discussion again about something that Californians heard about for years and voted on back in the 1980s, that's called a canal that would – a peripheral canal…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MYERS: …that would go around the Delta and convey water down to the south, very controversial in itself. The governor and some in the ag industry want dams for more storage for water. Very, very complicated issue. And let's not forget the legislative session is schedule to end on September 11th, so there's not a lot of time. They could come back in special session but things are very crunched up here with a lot of really, really tough policy issues.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you've got a lot on your plate there, John Myers. Thank…

MYERS: It's never a dull moment here in Sacramento.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Well, I really appreciate the update. Thanks so much, John.

MYERS: Thank you. You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for The California Report. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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