Skelton: Prison plan is another in string of victories for Gov. Brown

Any way you score it, the compromise legislation on California prison crowding is another sweet victory for Gov. Jerry Brown.

The governor, in fact, hasn't suffered a major defeat at the Capitol in two years.

Credit four factors: Fellow Democrats control the place. Budget bills now require only a simple majority vote. Brown carefully picks his shots, focusing on just one or two issues at a time. He's not exactly a rookie.

He's 3-for-3 on big at-bats in the Legislature this year. First there was his landmark changing of the school funding formula to spend more money on poor kids and English learners. Then he overhauled a much-abused tax break for economic development in so-called enterprise zones. Both moves were highly controversial.

Now there's the prison compromise, an unequivocal victory because it will allow Brown to ease crowding in state lockups — as ordered by a three-judge federal panel — without actually releasing inmates onto the street, his No. 1 priority. There'll be no Willie Horton on his watch.

And if the three liberal judges adhere to their ideological leanings and accept an option given them by the governor and Legislature, the compromise also will wind up as a win for the California prison system and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Steinberg opposed Brown's original prison plan, announced late last month. He argued that it would squander money on increasing prison capacity when it would be more prudent to spend scarce dollars on treatment programs that help former inmates avoid committing new crimes.

Brown's first plan, the Senate leader contended, "did nothing to stem the revolving door of offense, sentence, release and re-offense." The compromise, he says, "shifts to a much greater emphasis on reducing recidivism." The judges could opt for proven treatment — mental therapy, drug rehab, anger management — but to make the necessary money available, they'd need to extend their Dec. 31 deadline for reducing the prison population by nearly 10,000.

"The longer the extension, the more opportunity we have to rely on reducing recidivism" for crowding relief, Steinberg says. "The shorter the extension, the more we have to rely on increasing (prison) capacity." Under the governor's original plan, which will go into effect unless the judges extend their deadline, the state will spend roughly $1.1 billion over the next three years transferring prisoners to private lockups — mostly out of state — and to local jails and fire camps.

That initial Brown proposal was solidly backed by Assembly Speaker John A. P?ez, D-Los Angeles, and the Republican leaders of both houses.

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