Prison crowding: Gov. Brown can thank Supreme Court for political cover

By Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Emily Harris

Special to the Mercury News

Despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s pointless and frenzied vows to appeal once again, the Supreme Court’s decision ends an important chapter in the decades-long prison saga. The court denied Brown’s request for a stay in implementing the last of the court-ordered reduction in the state’s prison population. A month’s reprieve was all the governor got.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it has already identified those close to the end of their sentences, and elderly and infirm prisoners, whose release this year now seems inevitable. This will bring the state’s prison population down to 137.5 percent of capacity, or around 110,000 people — the suggested capacity George Deukmejian’s Corrections Independent Review Panel came up with nine years ago.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shelved the report, but current events show that was an unwise reaction to advice from the Republican former governor.

The common sense measures Brown and the department have been implementing since 2011, including realignment, have been kicking around Sacramento for a decade, as has the understanding that reducing the prison population will allow a shift in spending priorities. The federal three-judge panel and Supreme Court rulings enable those reforms to be implemented without risking political careers of timid lawmakers.

In other words, the federal courts can be blamed for results that Ronald Reagan, when governor, achieved of his own initiative by slashing the prison population more than 40 years ago. That neither moderate Republican Schwarzenegger nor mainstream Democrat Brown could imitate the conservative Republican tells us a lot about how politics and priorities changed over time.

More important, it tells us that change happens. Now is the time for Brown to finish the job. He has excellent guidance from one of the nation’s leading criminologists. James Austin defined how California can easily and safely complete its court-mandated responsibility: Continue to reduce the number of people locked up.

Brown would like Californians to see Corrections Corporation of America as the culprit. Now that the court has forbidden additional delay, here’s a new distraction that will sap the energy of advocates, while behind the scenes the state continues to hold people unnecessarily. Whether the state rents space from the private company or the city of Shafter, or builds its proposed 2,400 “infill beds,” the result is more devastation for California.

As with so many great stories, the current chapter ends not with resolution but with new questions. What happens next?

When Californians describe what they want, they talk about opportunity and well-being. Prisons and jails are notably absent. The Golden State excelled at delivering desirable goods to its residents. Republican Earl Warren and Democrat Pat Brown, Jerry’s father, kept promises to enhance everyday life. They innovated and the state prospered.

Will the next chapter follow a destructive path through more decades of build-and-fill prisons? Or will it revive, in criminal justice, the creativity that characterizes the Golden State’s best self?

Policy decisions made now will shape the new chapter as it develops heroes, villains and fools. The old story is in shambles. California should change the plot and write itself a new beginning.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a professor at City University of New York Graduate Center and author of “Golden Gulag.” Emily Harris is statewide coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. They wrote this for this newspaper.

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