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California prison crowding plan neglects rehabilitation: lawmaker

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A plan by California Governor Jerry Brown to ease prison crowding by leasing space in county jails and private lockups came under fire Wednesday from lawmakers who advocate spending more for rehabilitation and mental health services.

Fellow Democrats in the state Senate, led by Darrell Steinberg, condemned Brown's $315 million proposal as a short-term fix.

"Temporarily expanding California's prison capacity is neither sustainable nor fiscally responsible," Senate leader Steinberg wrote in a letter to Brown. "The administration's current plan is a risky gamble."

Rather than contracting for more prison space, the state should take three years to reduce the prison population by helping inmates re-enter society via rehabilitation and improved mental health services, Steinberg said.

California prisons have been in the national spotlight for the past year, as officials wrestle with overcrowding and concerns about the state's use of long-term solitary confinement for some prisoners.

More than 30,000 inmates began refusing meals in July in a hunger strike against prisoner isolation that is in its seventh week. Although the number of participants has dwindled, 41 inmates have gone without food since the protest began, state officials said Wednesday.

A special panel of three federal appellate judges ruled in 2009 that California's prisons can be permitted to exceed their design capacity, but they set a cap on the inmate population.

The resulting court order requires Brown to reduce the population in the state's 33 prisons by the end of this year by nearly 10,000 inmates, even if it means releasing some before they finish serving their sentences.

The governor has resisted repeated calls from the court panel to move quickly to ease crowding in the prisons, prompting the judges to threaten to hold him in contempt. The U.S. Supreme Court this month denied a petition from Brown seeking to waive the judges' order.

On Tuesday, Brown said he would propose spending about $315 million next year to house inmates in private facilities, county jails and out-of-state prisons. He also proposed keeping open a prison in the town of Norco that has been slated for closure.

Steinberg suggested the state ask for a three-year extension of the court's order to reduce prison crowding so rehabilitation programs and other reforms can begin to work.

He praised the policy known as realignment, in which some inmates were paroled to county authorities and then sent to county jails instead of state facilities if they committed certain crimes while they were out.

Steinberg also worked out a proposed settlement with the inmate attorneys in the overcrowding case. On Wednesday, the lawyers released a statement saying they would be willing to settle if the state allowed them to name two members to a panel overseeing prison conditions, and implemented the reforms outlined by Steinberg, among other concessions.

Brown's office released a terse statement about the tentative deal, saying it would do little more than hand over control of the state's prisons to inmate lawyers.

"It would not be responsible to turn over California's criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people," Brown said. "My plan avoids early releases of thousands of prisoners and lays the foundation for longer-term changes."

Brown's proposal must pass both houses of the Legislature to be enacted. It has won the support of Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Democrat, and Republican leaders in both houses. To pass the Senate, the measure must win Steinberg's support.

A spokesman for Brown did not say whether the administration would consider the Senate leader's suggestions.

(Reporting and writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Steve Gorman and Stacey Joyce)

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