Gov. Jerry Brown asked federal judges on Monday for a three-year delay in their requirement that the state release thousands of inmates by year's end to ease prison overcrowding.
If the judges reject his request, the administration would spend $315 million this fiscal year to house the inmates in private prisons and county jails instead of turning them loose.
The state had a court-ordered Monday deadline to report on its progress for reducing the prison population by about 9,600 inmates by the end of the year. Its response is based on a law enacted last week in the closing hours of this year's legislative session.
The state's plan is intended to offer the judges a choice in the long-running dispute over inmate care that now is before the U.S. Supreme Court for the second time.
The new law "appropriates $315 million to be used in different ways depending on whether the current December 31 population-cap deadline remains in place,'' the filing says.
Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lease available cells, the state is offering to spend part of the money on substance abuse and mental health treatment and other rehabilitation programs if the court extends its year-end deadline. The goal is to keep parolees from re-offending and being sent back to prison.
A compromise the governor worked out with legislative leaders of both parties last week also calls for increasing the amount of money the state gives counties as an incentive for working with felony probationers locally.
The new law "will reduce recidivism, promote public safety, and help divert inmates from our state prisons. Without an extension, these important initiatives will be delayed,'' Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement after the filing Monday night.
If the court agrees to the delay, the state will still send 2,500 inmates to county jails, community correctional facilities, and one private prison in California, but it won't add to the roughly 9,000 inmates currently housed in private prisons in other states. It would permanently increase funding for rehabilitation programs by a projected $100 million starting July 1. But the administration argues that it needs time to coordinate the changes and new programs with local governments and to look for long-term solutions to reducing crime and incarceration.
Brown simultaneously announced that he had signed SB260 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. The bill speeds up parole hearings for offenders serving lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as minors and is expected to help reduce the prison population.
There is no guarantee the courts will agree to the state's latest plan, particularly with inmates' attorneys objecting.
"There is no timetable, there's no promise of what programs will be in place when, all there is is a promise to talk some more even though they've had five years to evaluate these different alternatives,'' said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that sued over inmate crowding. "The definite trend in the rest of the nation is to go away from incarceration. Instead, California is going in the direction of another incarceration binge.''