Brown promises to get funding for California prison realignment

California Gov. Jerry Brown.
California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Gov. Jerry Brown continues to defend his prison realignment plan, that transfers thousands of lower-level nonviolent prisoners from state prisons to county facilities.

He told a gathering of local law enforcement officials on Wednesday that the shift is "a bold step" and one that is "long overdue."

His defense comes amid funding concerns from prison officials.

The policy shift begins Oct. 1 and is intended to help California save money and comply with a federal court order to reduce its population of state prison inmates. California has two years to reduce their state prison population by 30,000 inmates.

Brown addressed nearly 500 sheriffs, prosecutors, police chiefs and probation officers, some of whom have said their counties are not ready for the new burden. Others fear the state will cut funding after they take jurisdiction.

He said various commissions and reports over the years have urged just such a realignment of public safety, partly to save money and partly as a way to increase services to inmates and reduce the number who commit new crimes and return to prison.

"Lots of people, lots of academics, have been saying, 'Change this darn thing,' and that's what we're doing," Brown said.

Several law enforcement and local government officials attending the Sacramento conference called on the state to guarantee the long-term funding they say counties will need to make the shift work. Brown promised, as he has before, to do "whatever it takes" to guarantee the money through a constitutional amendment. He wants to place the measure before voters in November 2012.

"I'm not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee to protect law enforcement," Brown said to applause.

The law Brown signed in April was prompted by the state's fiscal problems and by a federal court ruling requiring the state to reduce the population of its adult prisons as way to improve inmate medical care.

The shift will not mean a release of current state inmates. Rather, lower-level offenders convicted after Oct. 1 will serve their time in county jails or alternative programs instead of being sent to state prison.

The offenders who will be redirected to county jails must have been convicted of crimes that are considered non-violent and non-serious, such as property, white collar and drug offenses. Those convicted of sexual offenses also are not eligible.

Additionally, most ex-convicts on parole will be monitored by county parole offices rather than state agents.

Once the shift fully takes place over four years, counties will have responsibility over about 25,000 convicts who otherwise would have gone to state prison, according to the latest projections from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Those already in state prison will complete their sentences there.

Some of the most prominent critics, including Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, did not attend the conference.

Jones has said local law enforcement is not yet ready to handle the responsibility and called on the state to postpone the transfer. Cooley has predicted an increase in crime as criminals are squeezed out of already crowded local jails.

State Sen. Sharon Runner said the realignment is "not only irresponsible and bad public policy but ... extremely dangerous."

"Now is the time for Californians to get a dog, buy a gun and install an alarm system. The state of California is no longer going to protect you," Runner, R-Lancaster, said in a statement after Brown's speech.

None of the local officials at the conference spoke forcefully against the shift. Many said implementing the law would be challenging but that it needs to be done.

"We're not letting out the dangerous people. We're going to keep them in. That's the whole point," Brown said.

Brown, a Democrat, said some of the criticism appears to be driven by partisan considerations from Republicans.

Also Wednesday, the governor signed AB1x17, adding to the list of crimes that will keep offenders in state prison. They include possessing a firearm during a street gang crime, throwing toxic substances on correctional officers, escaping from prison and illegally carrying a concealed weapon.

Brown and several local law enforcement leaders said shifting many of the offenders to local control will help end a cycle in which about 70 percent of inmates quickly return to prison. Counties can devise better alternate sentencing and rehabilitation programs while keeping offenders closer to their families and the community, they contend.

"It's our belief that with adequate funding — constitutionally protected funding — that we can get this job done and do it better than the state of California," said Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, president of the California State Association of Counties.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, also was optimistic.

"We do have challenges, but those challenges can turn into successes if done right," he said.