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Gov. Brown proposes $315 million plan for prisons

  • Gov. Jerry Brown, center, discusses a proposal to reduce California's prison population, at a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. Brown was joined Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, left, Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, of Diamond Bar, right, and various of law enforcement leaders, local government officials, and victims rights advocates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday responded to a federal court order to significantly reduce California's prison population by proposing a $315 million plan to send inmates to private prisons and to empty county jail cells.

The cost could reach $700 million over two years, with much of the money likely to come from a $1 billion reserve fund in the state budget.

During a news conference at the Capitol, Brown bristled at the court's suggestion that the state could continue its early release of certain inmates to meet the federal judges' population cap. He noted that California has already released some 46,000 inmates to comply with the court's orders and said only the most dangerous felons remain in state prison.

The judges have ordered the state to release an additional 9,600 inmates by the end of the year.

Brown, however, said sending them to available cells in privately run prisons within California and in other states, as well as to empty jail cells, is the best way to meet the court's mandate without endangering public safety.

The plan will now head to the Legislature. Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Democrat, was joined by the Republican leaders of both houses at the governor's news conference. Perez said he expected lawmakers to act before their session ends in mid-September.

However, approval is far from certain because of opposition from state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. He was noticeably absent from Brown's news conference but issued a statement saying the plan had "no promise and no hope."

Brown's proposal is the latest development in a long-running legal battle over how to improve the medical and mental health treatment of inmates. The federal courts have ruled that previous care was so poor that it failed to meet the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Over the past decade, the state has gone on a spending spree to build new prison medical and mental health facilities, while boosting its medical staff and offering salaries to health care professionals that can range between $200,000 and $400,000 a year, with many of them making even more money.

Brown said the state has spent billions of dollars to satisfy the judges' demands.

"This gives us some breathing room so that we can demonstrate to the courts that our health care and our mental health care meet constitutional muster," he said of the plan unveiled Tuesday.

During his news conference, Brown was joined by some of the leading law enforcement groups in the state. Associations representing district attorneys, county sheriffs, probation officers, police chiefs, rank-and-file officers and crime victims spoke in favor of his proposal.

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