Legislative analyst: Prison construction not necessary to end federal oversight

Solano Prison

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / EPA

Triple tiered bunk beds at Solano Prison in 2006. According to the state's legislative analyst, California could end federal court oversight of prison healthcare without costly new construction.

California could end federal court oversight of prison health care without all of the costly new construction planned. That’s the conclusion of a report out on Wednesday by the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst.

The report looks at Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to reduce prison overcrowding and save money doing it.

The Brown administration wants to expand facilities for mental health and medical care at a few prisons, shut down one prison and recall nearly 10,000 inmates that California sent to out-of-state prisons to ease overcrowding. Doing all that would save the state $1.5 billion a year.

But the governor’s plan hinges on getting a federal court to agree to let California exceed the prison population cap it ordered by 6,000 inmates. Aaron Edwards with the Legislative Analyst's Office says that’s a problem for lawmakers.

"It’s difficult for the Legislature to determine the most prudent course of action," said Edwards, "because their options really depend on whether the court approves that increase in the population cap."

Brown has given no time-table for when he'd ask the federal court to raise the cap.

Edwards said another problem with the governor’s plan is that prison officials haven’t justified the need for all of the planned expansions to medical and mental health facilities now that the state is shifting low-level offenders to county supervision. The LAO thinks three projects to build infill space at existing prisons and the renovation of a juvenile justice facility in Stockton won't be necessary based on CDCR's population projections. Edwards warns that if California builds those facilities, it could end up with $76 million in construction debt that it could have avoided.

But Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said to focus on the $1.5 billion savings that’ll come if lawmakers approve the governor’s plan.

"The bed plan and the other plans that we’ve mapped out in the blueprint are where we need to go," said Callison. "Will some changes perhaps be needed down the line? Well, that’s life, isn’t it? We’ll make those changes if and when they’re needed."

State lawmakers are searching for every dollar they can find. That could mean they’ll be more inclined to follow the Legislative Analyst's recommendation and do whatever costs less — like keeping some inmates in out-of-state prisons.

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