Open Letter to Gov. Brown & Sec. Cate re Plata/Coleman & Realignment

June 3rd, 2011

The Hon. Jerry Brown, Governor
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 9581411
Fax: (916) 558-3160

The Hon. Matthew Cate, Secretary of CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
1515 S Street, Room 113S
Sacramento, CA 95811
Fax: (916) 442-2637

Via facsimile and email PDF.

Dear Governor Brown and Secretary Cate,

We are encouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision in Plata v. Brown and hope that it will provide the opportunity to reverse decades of failed and costly criminal justice policy in California.  We are encouraged because this decision points a way to bring an end to California’s costly and inhumane commitment to imprisonment.  Over the past three decades, spending on Corrections has grown from around two percent of General Fund spending to ten percent, draining resources away from life-preserving and life-enhancing social services and health programs and forcing massive increases in fees at all three branches of the state’s public higher education system.

We recognize that reducing prison spending alone will not solve California’s deep budget crisis; nor will increased revenues.  But a combined approach of increasing revenues and decreasing prison spending will bring us much closer to the kind of California that puts our people first and social services before punishment.

The vision of your realignment proposal shows that you are willing and able to envision solutions to move us beyond the stagnant failure of our current system.  We have not seen details of how California and the counties will implement realignment, but some discussion in the press causes us concern; whether it is actually an alternative to imprisonment or merely an expansion of mass incarceration at the county level.  We are particularly worried that realignment will become a shell game of reducing the state prison population while increasing the number of people languishing in county jails.

There have been suggestions, especially after the passage of AB 109, AB 111 and AB 94, that realignment will require the construction of tens of thousands more county jail beds and that the goal is simply the transfer of custody responsibility from the state to the counties. Justice Kennedy pointed out in the majority Supreme Court opinion that we cannot build our way out of this crisis. Such an outcome would be a disaster and a wasted opportunity. If the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s taught us nothing else, we hope we have learned that “if you build them, you will fill them.”

Imagining that we can solve the problem of crowded cells by building more cells has clearly been one of the key failed policy dreams of governors since Mr Deukmejian.  Building to reduce overcrowding is what got us to Plata. Replicating that process at the county level is bound to repeat the nightmare conditions that led to Plata and Coleman.

It is important for us to keep in mind that California’s prison population increased 7-fold over a 30 year period in which the crime rate dropped, but during that same period over 2,000 new pieces of criminal legislation created new crimes and lengthened sentences for already existing ones. Among the budgetary victims of 30 years of prison building have been the in-prison programs for which California was once a world leader.  How, we wonder, will those individuals sentenced to three years in county jail, be provided the sort of programming that might help them in their transition to become contributors to our communities and our state? How will counties provide the medical and mental health care that were the central aim of these two lawsuits? Bringing prisoners back to the counties without providing decent conditions of confinement, including contact visits with children and other family members, programming, education, vocational training and drug treatment is inhuman and, possibly, illegal. We cannot afford to create a system that will be the center of serious litigation for years to come.

California counties are already spending anywhere from 70 to 80% of their general fund budgets on public safety, and an inadequately funded public safety realignment plan could mean the elimination or further reduction of parks, libraries and municipal support services for youth and elderly populations in the state.

If realignment is to work and if California is to seize the opportunity that the Supreme Court decision presents, we must be bold and innovative in our approach rather than reverting to a building frenzy that has proven both overwhelmingly expensive and ineffective.

The changes California has made to parole policies are a good first step, but much more is needed. As you are putting together the plan to reduce the prison population, there are dozens of changes to sentencing, parole and credits that would reduce the prison and jail populations, save the state and counties billions of dollars and increase public safety that we urge you to consider. Many are now being used in other states and have been shown to be effective. Several examples include:

  • Reform drug sentencing laws by making possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
  • Make low-level, non-violent property offenses misdemeanors instead of “wobblers” which can be charged as a felony.
  • Eliminate the racist disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine by reducing sentence lengths for crack cocaine to the sentence lengths for powder cocaine.
  • Repeal juvenile life without parole convictions.
  • Eliminate return-to-custody as a sanction for administrative and technical parole violations.
  • Provide independent community-based drug, mental health treatment and reentry services to people coming home from prison.
  • Parole people serving indeterminate sentences who have reached their parole eligibility dates.
  • Provide education and/or job training to every person in prison.
  • Expand “good time” credits.
  • Expand “good time” credits to include people imprisoned under Three Strikes.
  • Release people who are “mentally ill” to community-based mental health treatment programs.
  • Release elderly prisoners.
  • Release all people who are terminally ill and permanently medically incapacitated by expanding medical parole and utilizing compassionate release.
  • Repeal or amend the three strikes law so that the second and third strike must also be classified as “serious or violent”.
  • Eliminate the Governorʼs discretion to veto parole recommendations.

Additional strategies to reduce our prison population are outlined in CURB’s  Budget for Humanity and 50 Ways to Reduce the Number of People in Prison in California.

In any realignment, it is essential that counties be required, or at least be given very strong incentives, to reduce their jail populations so that an influx of those who would have done time at the state level does not lead to further crowding and deterioration of conditions in county jails. Existing programs like Community Corrections Performance Incentive Grants are one model and the state’s successful realignment of our juvenile system is another. The state must design realignment from the beginning to avoid a massive expansion of county jail facilities and populations that would do little but sow the seeds for 58 more Plata and Coleman suits in coming years.

The Supreme Court has opened a door for us. Together we can take the first important steps to move California, and perhaps the United States, away from the failed policies of imprisonment and back towards a society that invests our scarce tax resources to develop our people rather than cage them.

Please contact Emily Harris, Statewide Coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget to set up a meeting to discuss this matter further.


Lisa Marie Alatorre, Critical Resistance
Fanya Baruti, All of Us or None – Southern California
Morgan Bassichis, Community United Against Violence
Nancy Berlin, California Partnership
Gail Brown, Life Support Alliance
Gretchen Burns Bergman, Lead Organizer of Moms United to End the War on Drugs
Susan Burton, A New Way of Life Reentry Project
Daniel Carillo, Enlace
Manuel Criollo, Labor/Community Strategy Center
Kim Carter, Time for Change Foundation
Cynthia Chandler, Justice Now
Orlando Chavez, United for Drug Policy Reform
Linda Evans, All of Us or None
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the Graduate Center, CUNY
Stephen Gutwillig, Drug Policy Alliance
Emily Harris, Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Dolores Huerta, The Dolores Huerta Foundation
Gloria Killian, Action Committee on Women in Prison
Kris Lev-Twombly, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Jim Lindburg, Friends Committee on Legislation California
Laura Magnani, America Friends Service Committee
Miss Major, Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project
Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project
Kim McGill, Youth Justice Coalition
Jacqueline Miller, Women for Change Foundation
Julia Negron, A New PATH LA – Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing
Vanessa Nelson, Life Support Alliance
Dorsey Nunn, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Savannah O’Neill, Berkeley Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution
Amanda Petteruti, Justice Policy Institute
Dr. Tony Platt, Professor emeritus, Cal State Sacramento
Debbie Reyes, California Prison Moratorium Project
Renee Saucedo, La Raza Centro Legal
Penny Schoner, Prison Activist Resource Center
Geri Silva, Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes
Elizabeth Stewart, Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes – San Diego
Mary Sutton, Californians United for a Responsible Budget – Los Angeles
Diana Sylvestre, OASIS Clinic
Molly Talcott, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, California State University, Los Angeles
Jimmie Thompson, Fair Chance Project
Mailee Wang, Community Works West – Project WHAT!
Deirdre Wilson, California Coalition for Women Prisoners
Roger White, SEIU Local 1000
Clarissa Woo, American Civil Liberties Union Southern California
Southern California Library

More signatures to come….

Californians United for a Responsible Budget
1322 Webster St. #210
Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: 510-435-1176
Fax: 510-839-7615

CC:     Assembly Speaker John Pérez, Fax: (916) 319-2146
Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, Fax: (916) 319-2134
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Fax:  (916) 323-2263
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, Fax: (916) 327-2272

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