Prisons Debate: A Numbers Game?

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Quick, jot down the following numbers: 167,000... $1.2 billion... $3 million... 4%... 37%... 2.4. They're going to come in handy when lawmakers soon wrap themselves in a one of the most complicated and controversial areas of public policy: prisons.

The return of the Legislature next week will feature an intense debate on not just how to reduce prison overcrowding in response to the recent ruling by federal judges, but also on how to save cut prison spending as part of the state's budget crisis. A lot. And fast.

There was a smattering of tidbits today on the subject of prisons -- not quite actual news, but also not just chatter. It began with a background briefing for reporters by Senate GOP staffers, laying out data they believe proves false the belief that California's prisons are full of non-violent offenders that can easily be released.

It appears Republicans either don't have, or aren't ready to share, an alternative to Governor Schwarzenegger's framework for how to reduce spending and lower the prison population. As of the end of July, state prisons were way over capacity at some 167,000 inmates (there's Number 1).

But in regards to the latter -- a need to cut spending by $1.2 billion (there's Number 2) in the current fiscal year -- the Republican talking points are likely to be simple. Cut administrative costs. Cut spending on rehabilitation. Fight the court mandate to spend big bucks on prison health care.

Later this afternoon, corrections secretary Matthew Cate spoke with reporters as a sort-of rebuttal to some of the GOP points. Cate said on budget matters, time is definitely money; the state loses $3 million in possible savings every day a prison budget deal isn't struck (there's Number 3). He said the governor's proposal (which seems to exist mainly as a broad sketch for now) could lower the inmate population by as many as 27,000 in the first year alone.

But watch for legislative Republicans to argue that the solution should be building more prisons, not releasing prisoners. Senate GOP staff today pointed out data showing the inmate population grew by only 4% between the summer of 1999 and now (there's Number 4) while total the corrections department staff grew by 37% (there's Number 5) and medical personnel staffing increased by 219%.

One particular flash point could be the state's juvenile facilities, long criticized and litigated for their conditions and revamped in recent years. Senate GOP staff say the data shows there are now 2.4 staffers (there's Number 6) for every juvie offender. This follows along the public web comments this week of one Republican, Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster).

Secretary Cate said today that Schwarzenegger intends to cut the juvenile budget "signficantly," most notably by closing one of the existing six juvie facilities. He declined to say which one.

It seems likely that majority Democrats in the Legislature would want more reforms beyond those called for by Schwarzenegger, but there's also a sense that Dems and the Guv could resolve their differences relatively easily.

"To some extent, there does seem to be sort of a consensus emerging that overcrowding is a real problem," said federal prison health care receiver Clark Kelso on Monday.

But tell that to legislative Republicans. One staffer in today's Senate GOP background briefing suggested that a quick closing of the ranks between Democrats and the governor would probably spark GOP legislators to ramp up their PR campaign on the perils of "early release," defining that volatile concept as broadly as possible and appealing to universal concerns about public safety.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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