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Paige St. John
June 21, 2014

Nearly 15 months after launching what he called the “boldest move in criminal justice in decades,” Gov. Jerry Brown declared victory over a prison crisis that had appalled federal judges and stumped governors for two decades.

Diverting thousands of criminals from state prisons into county jails and probation departments not only had eased crowding, he said, but also reduced costs, increased safety and improved rehabilitation.

“The prison emergency is over in California,” Brown said in early 2013.

The numbers tell a different story.

Today, California is spending nearly $2 billion a year more on incarceration than when Brown introduced his strategy in 2011. The prisons are still overcrowded, and the state has been forced to release inmates early to satisfy federal judges overseeing the system.

Counties, given custody of more than 142,000 felons so far, complain that the state isn’t paying full freight for their supervision. Many jails are now overcrowded, and tens of thousands of criminals have been freed to make room for more.

“The charts are sobering,” Senate Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said at a hearing this year on crime, prison costs and inmate numbers.

Still, Brown insists his plan is working, although he has conceded that change can be slow. “It is not going to create miracles overnight,” he said as he returned to his office from a Capitol rally for crime victims earlier this spring.

The governor’s office has embraced the idea that much of the incarceration, probation and rehabilitation cycle should take place on the local level, instead of being left to the state.

Putting prisoners back in local hands “is encouraging and stimulating creative alternatives,” he said.

In the Kings County jail, scores of prisoners are stacked three high in steel bunk beds. The jail ran out of room soon after Brown’s program began redirecting prisoners to the county, Sheriff Dave Robinson said.

Although he could have released some, Robinson instead rolled out mats and borrowed dozens of triple bunk beds from nearby Avenal State Prison.

They were the same ones that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had called a public safety hazard in his emergency declaration over prison crowding in 2006.

The steel gray bunks filled with men in green-and-white striped uniforms line the open spaces at the Kings County Jail. “We’re doing what the state did,” Robinson said.

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