Debra J. Saunders

How small is the California prison population likely to become if Gov. Jerry Brown has his way? In three years, California's prison population would be 20 percent smaller.

When we chatted on the phone on the issue last week -- always an experience -- Brown sounded more like his old self, a left-wing talk-show host of the 1990s, than the tough-on-crime Oakland mayor and state attorney general who followed.

There are always two Jerry Browns. There's the talk-show Brown who likened American incarceration rates to "absolute oppression." A decade later, Attorney General Brown fought three federal judges, who ordered California to release 37,000 to 58,000 inmates to relieve overcrowding, because the judicial panel "does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed."

Now as governor, he has signed a bill to transfer some 37,000 inmates -- felons convicted of nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex crimes -- to local jurisdictions over three years. The move should save boatloads of money, as jail beds cost about half the $50,000 annual tab per state prison inmate. "Low-level offenders" also could be diverted to community programs, parole or home detention. Critics call it a get-out-of-jail-free card.

For the 47,000 inmates serving fewer than 90 days last year (they violated parole or have served a chunk of their time in jail), the current system makes no sense. As Brown noted, "all these damn lawsuits" require expensive medical, dental and psych evaluations whenever inmates are admitted, even for short stays.

Brown also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a ruling "any day" that forces the state to release inmates to relieve overcrowding as per the three judges -- an odd pronouncement from the state's erstwhile lawyer. I think he's wrong. Recent big-bench decisions have steamrolled over federal judges' intrusions into state justice policy.

As always happens, Brown is amazed that I don't see that his plan is "conservative." "This represents the best thinking of people in penology," he explains -- and an end to what he calls wasteful "$50,000 scholarships."

Debra J. Saunders

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