California Gov. Jerry Brown assembled a phalanx of local politicians and cops the other day to assure the public that the “realignment” of some criminal-justice, health and social-service functions to counties will not endanger anyone.
The most controversial part of the plan is to have local authorities divert future low-level felons from state prison into local jails. Locals then presumably would make room for them by sending fewer minor miscreants to jail.
It’s aimed, mostly, at satisfying a federal judicial decree, recently ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court, that California must reduce prison overcrowding.
Brown and his team hope they can satisfy the courts on the cheap and avoid early releases of felons from prison, which might disturb the public and generate a political backlash.
Brown said his scheme would “fix a prison system that has been profoundly dysfunctional for decades.”
Those decades, one could say, began when Brown signed a bunch of lock-’em-up crime bills during his first stint as governor and then launched what became a huge prison-construction program as inmate numbers soared.
However, some local officials, such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are publicly critical of the prisoner shift, and the plan’s finances are very shaky.
Originally, Brown would have financed realignment by extending some temporary tax increases, but couldn’t get them through the Legislature. So instead, $6.3 billion from existing sales and car taxes and mental-health funds is being shifted to counties in a way that reduces school aid by $2 billion-plus.
How can the state afford the shift when it has big budget deficits?
The gap was closed, on paper, by assumptions that the state would get another $4 billion in unanticipated revenue, that the school gap would be covered by voter-approved new taxes in 2012 and that voters would pass a constitutional amendment to guarantee realignment financing.
But so far, the $4 billion isn’t showing up. Polls indicate that voters are reluctant to approve more taxes on themselves, so the whole scheme is, to say the least, uncertain.
And if those assumptions don’t pan out?
“That’s why I haven’t outlined a full plan,” Brown said. “We’re going to get a guarantee, and we’re going to do it in the best way we can.”
“Look,” he added, “people have been failing at this job for a long time. I said I’m going to fix it. I’m going to fix it. It’s going to take me a couple years. And I’m going to present it to the people, and I pray that I have the eloquence and the clarity to put it before the people so they can make a judgment. If everything turns out, ‘No, no, no,’ then we’ll regroup, we’ll have a press conference ... and I’ll tell you the austere path that we will follow thereafter.”
That’s new Brownspeak for “It will emerge,” one of his favorite phrases back in the day.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.