The County Voice

The Governor Makes a Case Re: Prison Reforms

I was lucky enough to squeeze into room 1190 at the Capitol on Tuesday for Governor Brown’s press conference regarding prison conditions in California. It was a virtuoso performance by one of the preeminent figures in the last half century of California politics.

The Governor, citing a significant reduction in the number of inmates and major improvements in physical and mental health care, officially ended the state of emergency in California prisons. And via legal briefs filed this week the Governor also implored a special three-judge panel to allow California to keep the prison population at its current level of just under 150 percent of design capacity, rather than reduce it by an additional 10,000 inmates or so as they have previously ordered.

Further reductions, the Governor said, would require releasing some significantly violent criminals, putting public safety at risk. Brown also argued that we are spending enough on prisons—at the expense of education, which keeps people out of prison in the long run.

While the word “contentious” is often used to describe the Governor’s relationship with the news media, on Tuesday he was glib, engaging, and right on message. Reporters pitched some tough questions and the Governor generally hit them out of the park. While the news coverage also reflects the sentiments of the ACLU and prisoner rights organizations, it is still likely to engender more public sympathy for the Governor’s position than the inmates’. Even Dan Walters, the political columnist for the Sacramento Bee who has pilloried Brown on other issues, wrote a generally favorable column.

Of course, the three-judge panel is supposed to ignore the public hubbub and consider only the legal arguments filed in the case. As they do so, California’s 58 counties remain on pins and needles because if the state is required to reduce the prison population by another 10,000 inmates, much of the burden of managing them will fall on counties, one way or another.

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