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 P?ez stubbornly refuse to consider any alternative.
In doing so, they ignore both the shortcomings of the governor's plan and the state's limited resources.
Brown's plan would chew up most of the state's $1.1 billion reserve to keep inmates behind bars without doing anything to reduce the steady flow of new prisoners. Before long, California would again be out of compliance with the court order to keep its prisons at no more than 137.5 percent of their design capacity.
Steinberg would undo an incentive for counties to send people to prison, paying them instead to use proven treatment and rehabilitation models — an approach that already eased crowding in the state's juvenile prisons.
Several states, including such conservative bastions as Texas, have used commissions to restore a measure of reason and proportion to harsh sentencing laws passed by legislators eager to pose as no-nonsense crime fighters but less willing to pay for the prisons needed to warehouse the people serving those long sentences
Steinberg's plan isn't without problems. Like the governor's it taps a limited state reserve; but it does so with the promise of reducing the inmate population and, therefore, long-term spending on prisons.
Moreover, there's no guarantee the judges would postpone the Dec. 31 deadline. Until now, they've refused, and the U.S. Supreme Court has backed them up. But the judges must recognize that a short-term fix, including early release for 9,600 inmates, only delays the inevitable.
It's time for all parties — legislators, the governor, the court and the inmates lawyers — to stop squabbling and find a solution. Steinberg's plan is a good place to start.