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Senate, Calif. Governor Clash On Prison Spending

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to deal with a federal court order to lower the state's prison population faces an uncertain future in the state Legislature because of opposition from key members of his own political party.

If lawmakers fail to reach agreement quickly, they risk having federal judges override state law and take the step that is opposed by the governor, lawmakers and law enforcement -- releasing 9,600 felons by the end of the year.

While Brown has support from three of the four legislative leaders of both political parties, Senate Democrats led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are pushing their own competing solution.

They plan to present their alternative Wednesday to Brown's proposal to spend more than $300 million this year to temporarily rent thousands of prison cells.

The senators are expected to seek a delay in the court-ordered Dec. 31 deadline while the state increases spending on rehabilitation programs that proponents say would solve the state's long-term problem by keeping more criminals out of prison.

Steinberg, of Sacramento, was the lone legislative leader to avoid Brown's news conference on Tuesday. He immediately issued a statement saying that the plan had "no promise and no hope."

Brown's proposal "would suggest we've not learned anything from the past 30 years," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, one of Steinberg's top lieutenants. "We cannot incarcerate our way out of it. A solution that is only about more beds does not get to the core of the problem."

Leno, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called Brown's plan to spend $765 million over two years on temporary prison beds "a huge amount of money to spend on a non-solution." The money would likely to come from a $1.1 billion reserve fund in the state budget.

Better to spend the money on mental health and drug treatment, education and job training, and programs that would help prevent parolees from committing new crimes, he said. It would take years to see the results of those efforts, Leno acknowledged, which he said would require attorneys representing inmates to agree to push back the year-end deadline and persuade federal judges to go along.

Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, would not confirm that his office is in negotiations to delay the court-ordered deadline. But he, too, criticized Brown's proposal as "just more of the same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

"It's really pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into what the governor called the 'rat hole' (of prison spending) just a few months ago," Specter said.

If Brown, the state Legislature and inmates' attorneys can't reach agreement, a special panel of federal judges has already said it will force the state to release less-serious offenders in order to reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates. The court has previously said that level is necessary to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates.

Brown is appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but a ruling would not come until next year and the high court has already upheld the lower panel's authority to order releases.

The governor argued that California has already reduced the prison population by some 46,000 inmates to comply with the court's orders and said only the most dangerous convicts remain in state prison.

He had support from both Republican leaders and from Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, who promised to pass the governor's proposal out of the Assembly. An Assembly committee will begin reviewing the governor's plan on Thursday.

Perez said public safety is of the utmost importance and "we will not do a single thing that will put us in a position of releasing a single extra prisoner."

Steinberg said in a statement that his members also oppose early releases.

"We're in agreement that any mass release of inmates is not in the public interest," Brown spokesman Jim Evans said in an emailed response to Steinberg's statement.

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