How bad is California's prison overpopulation problem when the governor unveils his inmate-reduction recommendations and then criticizes them in the same breath? Bad. But that's how Gov. Jerry Brown framed his court-ordered plan to ease prison overcrowding last week.
The plan, promptly panned by several constituencies including many from the governor's own party, calls for speeding up the release of some inmates and allowing others, including some with violent histories, to become state firefighters. It's another bizarre development in the state's monumentally difficult, federally mandated quest to cut prison populations.
"The plan is ugly. We don't like it. But considering the inmates we have left in our prison population, it's the best plan we can come up with," corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said Friday. Those aren't exactly words of comfort to California residents already jittery about the state's transfer of responsibility for many inmates and the outright release of some onto the streets.
Brown is in a tough spot. A panel of federal judges has threatened to hold him personally accountable if he does not comply with the longstanding order to reduce inmate populations -- an order, incidentally, that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld. Clearly the governor is not on board with the plan, but his hand has been forced.
But with public safety concerns, justified or not, sure to ratchet up a few notches as citizens digest this new plan, we have to wonder if the public would welcome a little open defiance from Brown. He may not be recognizable to some, but this is the same unconventional governor of the 1970s who chose to live in an apartment rather than the governor's mansion and who shunned a state-provided limousine and instead rode to work in a Plymouth sedan. Can a governor commit an act of civil disobedience once every other avenue of recourse has been tried?
While some may debate whether realignment has contributed significantly to an uptick in crime, it's hard to imagine a world that would not be more dangerous if these new steps are layered on top of changes in inmate assignments and release programs.
Take another provision of the plan that to many will raise a public safety red flag: the granting of early release or so-called "good time" credits to inmates with serious prior convictions. Wasn't it just yesterday we were being assured only low-level, nonviolent offenders would benefit from early release under the realignment plan? How, exactly, did we get from those original realignment proposals to what the governor unloaded on us last week?
That our federal courts would look out for the welfare of state inmates is a good thing; it underscores our collective desire to be a compassionate and civilized society. But at what point do the courts consider what prison "reform" is foisting on law-abiding members of free society? We seem to have reached that point.