Brown’s plan to shift inmates faces big challenges

Gov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious proposal to shift responsibility for thousands of state prisoners to county jails is a complex challenge that remains elusive even as he prepares to sign legislation to launch his agenda.

The measure, a 652-page opus, is as contentious as it is complex. But generally, Brown proposes to save the state money by having the county take over supervision of low-level, non-violent offenders and parolees.

Most immediately, Brown must win legislative and voter support for his proposal to extend temporary increases in income, sales and car taxes to help pay counties to handle the new responsibilities.

If the tax extensions fail, so too does the transfer of prisoners and along with it a much broader plan to shift other state health and social services to counties. That’s because the state would simply not have the financial resources to offset additional county costs.

Even if Brown overcomes resistance to the tax extensions, the job – and controversy – is far from over.

Brown must still further define details in the broad prison policy to be developed in cooperation with counties and law enforcement in the coming months. How the money will be allocated is another conundrum. The Legislature will likely intervene, given its budget authority.

Farther out, Brown’s tax extension has a five-year shelf life, and Republicans are pushing for that to be shortened to 18 months. Either way, no one has fleshed out how the state would pay for the deal when the tax increases expire.

Brown’s strategy is driven by a desperate need to slash state spending.

Each prison inmate costs the state about $47,000 a yea. The thinking is that counties could do the job much more cheaply, perhaps as little as $25,000 a year. Transfers would not be immediate. Only those sentenced or eligible for parole after July 1 would be put under a county’s watch.

The move to transfer prisoners would save the state a net $336 million and cut the prison population by 9,800 inmates in 2011-12, according to an initial review by the state Legislative Analyst. By full implementation, the state would save $1.4 billion by reducing prison populations by 38,000 in 2014-2015.

Counties would receive $212 million this fiscal year and $821 million annually by 2014-2015, the analyst reported.

Brown and lawmakers remain locked in negotiations to find more savings after he signed various spending reductions amounting to nearly $13 billion last week. Before bringing out the axe, Brown and lawmakers were staring at a $26.6 billion gap over the next 15 months out of an $84.6 billion general fund.

However, Brown chose not to immediately sign AB 109, the cornerstone legislation that will start the process of transferring prisoners to counties. That delay signals that it has become one of many obstacles to placing the tax extensions on the ballot.

Brown needs at least two Republicans in each house to secure the two-thirds majority necessary to place the tax extensions on the ballot. The increases, amounting to an average $260 annually for each Californian, will otherwise expire June 30.

Republicans were unified in opposition to the prison legislation. They say it dumps too many dangerous prisoners on counties. As a result, sheriffs may have to release some inmates early, putting residents and businesses at risk, opponents say.

“The people of California would be voting for taxes that would put their lives, their families and property at risk,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, a GOP budget writer.
“The more I know about this the more problems I see,” Nielsen said.

Moreover, Nielsen said the plan is an insult to victims.

“They don’t have closure. They don’t get over it. All they can have is justice. Now justice is being heinously and atrociously dumped,” the assemblyman charged.

Brown and his supporters counter that the move gives counties the flexibility to choose who to set free, who to put on probation and who to divert to alternative sentencing programs – all the while saving money because jails are cheaper than prisons.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, one of the chief budget architects, said the state must begin to move aggressively given the cost and failures associated with the prison system. More than six of 10 released felons commit new crimes, a court-appointed receiver is in charge of billions of dollars in health care spending and 60 percent of state employees work for the prison system.

“All the while prisons continue to suck up general fund dollars,” said Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles.
Counties resist preaching doom, but are wary. The measure, standing alone, could be “very troubling,” said Elizabeth Howard Espinosa, who tracks realignment issues for the California State Associations of Counties.

However, coupled with the tax extensions and other program shifts, counties could make it work as long as the governor and Legislature free local governments to run the services without too much state interference.

“Tell us what the outcomes are, what the goals are but don’t tell us how to do it,” San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox told the governor in a meeting last week.
Brown, outlining his proposals to supervisors in that unprecedented 90-minute face-to face meeting in mid-March, committed to giving counties “the right and authority to get the job done.”

Brown urged counties to get behind the tax extension, warning that without the revenues “the next round of cuts will be much more painful, much more disruptive. I came here not to kid anybody.”

That talk worries counties. Howard Espinosa of the counties association said one worst-case outcome would be for the cash-starved state to simply dump prisoners and programs on counties without sending a check.

– State would transfer responsibility of a large number of low-level, non-violent inmates to counties based on their crimes and sentences.
– Transfer many parolees to county probation.
– Hand-off some juvenile justice programs to counties.
– Counties could refuse some prisoners, but would the have to send the money back to the state.
How the shift would be paid for:
– Most of the funding would come from extending for five years the 2009 increases in the sales and car taxes. (The personal income tax hike extension would go to other state programs).
– If the tax extension fails, it is presumed that the realignment plan will have to be abandoned or recrafted.
– But even if the extension is approved, a major question looms: how will the state pay for the transfer of responsibilities to counties when those tax increases expire?

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