Gov. Jerry Brown is right to push for an end to court-ordered federal oversight of state prisons. During Brown's brief tenure, California has taken dramatic steps to reduce its inmate population, mainly through so-called prison realignment, which has diverted state prisoners to county jails and transferred supervision of inmates who have completed their terms from state parole to county probation officers. The state prison population today stands at around 133,000, a reduction of about 42,000 inmates since 2006. While the state may reach the goal of reducing overcrowding to 130 percent of system capacity by June 2013, it's clear Brown is correct when he says the steps it would take to get there are too risky.
A plan filed by the Brown administration earlier this week showing how it would reach the 130 percent overcrowding goal included moving more dangerous inmates than have been previously allowed into fire camps, further trimming prison sentences with good behavior adjustments and extending the use of private prisons. And if that doesn't work, the state could be forced to release up to 7,000 inmates when the deadline comes.
The real test of how far state prisons have come shouldn't require meeting a certain number by a certain date. It should be based on an assessment of prison capacity and access to health care, which was at the heart of the suit. And it should consider that states can't fund prison reform at the expense of other essential government functions, like public safety, education and social safety nets.
California's prison system has been subjected to more scrutiny than any state in the nation. Sound reforms have been enacted, although the state must remain committed to fixing problems like inmate suicide and the scourge of solitary confinement. But no prison system will ever be flawless; it is prison after all. In any case, Californians aren't up for pursuing that ideal when it's so costly to other critical areas -- and, with respect to inmate population mandates, literally puts the lives of ordinary people at greater risk.
As Brown put it, "We have to spend as much as we need but no more, and I think we've hit that point."