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Government & Politics

With Competing Political and Legal Pressures, Brown Defends Prison Realignment

Jerry Brown
Andrew Nixon
Capital Public Radio

Governor Jerry Brown is taking hits both inside and outside the State Capitol as he faces a stinging federal court order to reduce California’s prison population - and impassioned calls to expand it.  Katie Orr has more from Sacramento on the events Tuesday that show the competing political and legal pressures surrounding the governor.

Pictures of murder victims lined the walkway in front of the State Capitol at the Annual Crime Victims March. As a band played, family and friends searched for their loved one’s portrait. It’s been nearly two years since Janet Steinbach’s 29-year-old son Adam was murdered. Steinbach says she finds comfort in being around people who’ve gone through what she has. And she appreciates that Governor Jerry Brown took some time to talk to the crowd.

“This is my second time hearing him. And I enjoyed hearing a little more vim and vigor in his voice, more determination,” says Steinbach. 

Brown’s fiery tone may stem from a new battle he finds himself in with a federal three-judge panel. It says the Governor is not doing enough to reduce prison overcrowding in California. Brown argued the state has made great strides in reducing overcrowding. But the panel is threatening to charge Brown with contempt if the state doesn’t release thousands more prisoners by mid-May. The ruling called Brown contumacious.

“I’m not contemptuous and I’m not contumacious. In fact I had to look in the dictionary to figure out what the hell that word meant,” said Brown.

For the record, it means stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority.

Though the crowd chuckled at his line, many at the rally can’t stand Brown’s prison realignment policy. The controversial program transfers responsibility for some low level offenders to county jails in an attempt to reduce state prison overcrowding. Some local law enforcement officials say realignment puts too much pressure on the counties and puts their communities at risk. Nina Salarno Ashford, with Crime Victims United, says Brown deserves credit for speaking at the rally. But, Salarno says "what’s in place now is a disaster, it’s a train wreck. So we are trying to communicate. We’re pushing him to maybe open up some more facilities and restructure who we go about certain things in our system.”

Inside the Capitol, the Senate Public Safety Committee spent much of the day hearing Republican sponsored bills that would roll back parts of realignment. The Democrat lead committee was not very receptive. Many Democrats pointed out that sending some of the county inmates back to prison would not meet the goal of reducing the prison population.

Meanwhile Brown is appealing the three-judge panel’s ruling that continues federal oversight of California’s prisons. The governor’s response is raising the ire of Don Specter with the Prison Law Group, which originally filed the lawsuit seeking to improve inmate health care. 

"It reminds me of Orville Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas, who in 1957, stood on the steps of the Arkansas School District in defiance of a similar order from a court to desegregated the schools because he didn't believe that the Constitution required integration," says Specter. 

Brown’s Press Secretary says that hyperbole does not merit a response. But during his speech to the crime victims, the Governor vowed he’d fight to both keep realignment on track and not release thousands of inmates.

“I’m working every day to figure out how to take this case, which we’re losing now, to get in front of the U.S. Supreme Court so we don’t have to let out those 10,000 people. And I pledge to you I will do everything under the law to achieve that result,” said Brown. 

Even if it means being a little contumacious.

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