4 important public safety proposals in Governor Jerry Brown's planned budget

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Governor Jerry Brown's proposed state budget, released Thursday, contains a host of public safety proposals. Here are four of the most important among them.

Prison overcrowding

The state's facing an April deadline to meet a federal-court-ordered reduction in prison overcrowding. And it's not likely to hit that target.

In his budget proposal, Brown said he'll seek a 2-year extension to meet the state's lower prison population targets. The budget includes two plans: one for if the state wins an extension; the other for if it doesn't.

Assuming the extension goes through, the state will follow a plan agreed to by Brown and California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg that focuses on rehabilitating offenders and providing community services to reduce the demand for prison space. The budget also provides funds for contracts with private prisons within California to house state prisoners.

If the extension doesn't go through, Brown's proposal calls for an additional $315 million to contract for prison beds in and outside of California to alleviate crowding in the state-run facilities.

Shorter jail sentences for some

When prison realignment went into effect, part of the change was giving more local control to counties to decide how to punish people for things like drug and property crimes. Judges in each county could decide whether to sentence someone to jail for the same amount of time they would have previously served in prison. Or they could choose a split sentence--usually 2/3 of the sentence in a jail cell and the rest on community supervision. 

Some counties took split sentencing and ran with it. Riverside County, for instance, sentences 76 percent of its realignment offenders to split sentences. L.A. County, however, has been slow to embrace the change, and uses it in only 6 percent of cases.

A proposal in Brown's budget would make split sentences the default sentence for lower level felonies. 

"This is something that's working very well in some of the counties out there, and we think that more counties should be paying attention and perhaps using it," said Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, says the change would be a good one--mostly because at the moment, realignment offenders leaving jail in places like Los Angeles have no supervision at all. 

"This would allow us to provide structured reentry and be smart about how we're using our local justice resources," Anderson said. 

The L.A. District Attorney's Office was not immediately available for comment. In the past, many D.A.s have opposed expanding split sentences, saying judges should have leeway in how people are sentenced, and that a blanket reduction in jail time sends the wrong message. A similar proposal last year went nowhere after the California District Attorneys Association opposed it. 

Mark Zahner, the organization's CEO said Thursday that the association will work with the governor on the new legislation--and will wait to see the details before taking a stance on the new proposal.

L.A. County's probation department has pushed for an increase in split sentences for some time.

Deputy Chief Margarita Perez said the change would allow probation to require that some offenders leaving jail participate in drug rehab or anger management classes.

"The assumption of a split sentence is going to support our efforts to assist this population in reintegrating into the community," Perez said.

$500 million for jail construction

The state has given about $1.7 billion to counties over the past couple of years to fund jail construction projects and Brown's proposed budget contains an additional $500 million. 

That's sure to be welcome news for county sheriff's departments that have big jail building plans underway, like Los Angeles County. (L.A.'s Assistant Sheriff for Custody Terri McDonald was not immediately available for comment.)

Prison reform advocates, however, are less thrilled about the cash infusion. California's incarceration rate has dipped in the past couple of years, post-realignment, and Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, worries that as new jails are built, more people will go to jail, and for longer periods.

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard said the idea is not to increase jail capacity, but to update aging facilities.

"That 500 million is to build better space and treatment space," Beard said, noting that jails are not built to house people for years and years, something they're now required to do under realignment. Many jails, he said, don't have the mental health care and programming space they need to make jail time more rehabilitative. 

Beard also pointed out that the state population is growing by about 1 percent each year.

"Just that is going to put pressure on the need to grow the prison system," he said.

Harris, however, said the state should first look to invest in community providers who provide services like mental health and substance abuse treatment.

"We don't believe that we need to be building out jail capacity to provide those services," she said. "We should be providing those services in the community."

Money for courts

California's trial courts have taken major hits in recent years, and Brown's budget proposal would restore some of that funding.

In his budget, he proposes an additional $100 million for superior courts.

L.A. County's Presiding Judge David S. Wesley said the past 5 years of budget reductions have been hard.

"Unfortunately, given a required 25% reduction in staff, we are only able to maintain access to justice at the price of widespread delays and backlogs," Wesley said.

Brown's proposal, "may prove adequate to cover our Court’s existing unfunded costs and anticipated cost increases for the next fiscal year."

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