California prison chief says funding realignment only way to meet population cap

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A guard stands at the entrance to the California State Prison at San Quentin.

State prison officials today handed a panel of federal judges their plan to reduce California’s prison population.

The state has two years to comply with a court order to get 30,000 inmates out of the prison system.

State lawmakers have already passed the plan corrections hopes will reach the target – but funding for that plan is still up in the air.

Corrections officials say California can reduce the prison population safely through a newly enacted law that shifts thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders to the counties. The problem is the legislature hasn’t approved funding for AB 109. And without funding, the law that’s supposed to take effect on July 1 will stay on hold. Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says California can’t afford to wait any longer.

"We really are out of time and we’re out of room and so we’ve got to get this done," Cate said. "Really if it doesn’t happen and if 109 doesn’t get funded and 109 isn’t implemented. Then we’re in trouble. I don’t see any other way to get there."

Brown has proposed extending a series of temporary tax hikes for five years to pay for realignment. But Republicans in the state legislature oppose the tax package. Secretary Cate says the governor is doing everything he can to change their minds.

"Every type of cajoling and pressure and discussion that can happen," Cate said.

If funding for realignment stalls, Cate says he’ll send more inmates to prisons in other states as a temporary measure – and ask the federal judges for more time to reduce California’s prison population. But that’s a risky strategy. By November, the Department Corrections is supposed to reduce the number of prison inmates by 10,000. Cate says if it fails to meet its first reduction benchmark, the judges could order the state to release inmates.

Map: California state prisons and prison populations

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