Gov. Jerry Brown open to fine-tuning criminal justice changes 

click to enlarge California prisons
  • AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
  • In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. California counties are thwarting the state's efforts to comply with a federal court order to reduce it's inmate population by sending state prisons far more convicts than anticipated including a record number of second-strikers.
Gov. Jerry Brown defended his 3-year-old criminal justice realignment law Wednesday but also told California law enforcement organizations that he is open to making improvements.

The Democratic governor said that what many law enforcement officials want most is more money, but that's still in short supply despite the state's budget surplus.

The realignment law, pushed by Brown, took effect in October 2011. He saw it as a way of reducing prison spending while lowering the inmate population in response to federal court orders. It keeps most lower-level offenders in county jails instead of sending them to state prisons.

Brown told the Alliance of California Law Enforcement during its annual legislative day that state and local governments are still trying to find the "right mix" between incarceration and rehabilitation. Organizers include associations representing district attorneys, police chiefs, probation officers and county sheriffs.

He described the law's rollout to date as "so far, so good." He also defended the law's approach of letting each of California's 58 counties independently decide how to implement its provisions. That includes letting them decide how to spend a total of $1 billion a year allocated by the state specifically for realignment-related operations.

"It's working at the local level in different ways from the north to the south," Brown told reporters afterward.

Brown said during his speech that county officials have told him they are concerned about getting criminals proper mental health and drug abuse treatment. That is one of many concerns to arise since the law took effect.

County officials have been forced to release some criminals early because their jails are now overcrowded. Many also have seen an increase in jail violence as they house criminals who previously would have gone to state prisons.

They also have expressed concerns about housing inmates serving lengthy sentences in jails that were built to hold offenders no longer than a year.

"I do think we want to be very careful on any measures that raise costs," Brown told reporters. "People always want a little more money. But other than that, I think people are pretty excited."

The law quickly reduced the state prison population by 25,000 inmates, but the drop has since leveled off. Federal judges recently gave the state until 2016 to further reduce the population to about 112,000 inmates as the best way to improve treatment for sick and mentally ill prison inmates.

Brown, who is seeking re-election this year, was philosophical during his speech about society's age-old challenge of finding a proper balance between locking up criminals and treating their underlying problems.

"They are questions that have been asked for a long time," he said. "What crime should result in what kind of punishment?"

That decision is best made at the local level, he said, adding that, "We need to get the right mix. And that right mix doesn't happen overnight. It's going to happen through learning, trial-and-error, and we won't always get it right. ... Over time, the law itself can be adjusted to take into account what we've learned."

He declined to say what specific changes might be needed.

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