California has an immediate burden: Complying with a court-imposed deadline to reduce prison crowding.
The easy solution, the approach championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is to spend $315 million this year and $415 million each of the next two years to rent space in private prisons and county jails.
That might satisfy the court. It also would spare the governor, who is up for re-election next year, any political fallout from releasing inmates early.
If Brown can get beyond the immediate crisis, he may be able to leave the consequences for the next governor, just as his predecessors did with, among other headaches, prison crowding.
Buying time may suit Brown's needs, but it would prove costly for the rest of us.
California can't rent or build its way out of its prison problems. One of the biggest problems is that no one ever lost an election promising longer sentences. And, given the recidivism rate, prisons may as well have revolving doors.
If the state is serious about alleviating crowding, it needs to intervene before people are incarcerated.
That's why Brown should take another look at state Senate President Darrell Steinberg's alternative plan, which allocates $200 million a year for rehabilitation, drug treatment and mental health programs to keep people out of prison in the first place. Steinberg also called for a commission to recommend changes to the state's unduly harsh sentencing laws.
Democrats in the state Senate favor Steinberg's approach. So do attorneys for the inmates whose lawsuits resulted in a panel of judges' ruling that state prisons are unconstitutionally crowded.
The lawyers' support is crucial because Steinberg conditioned his plan on a three-year extension of a court-imposed Dec. 31 deadline to release 9,600 inmates. Unfortunately, the judges may not get a chance to reconsider. Brown and Assembly Speaker John Pérez stubbornly refuse to consider any alternative.