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How can cash-strapped California comply with Supreme Court ruling on prisons?

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“Without the funding mechanism we can’t do it,” says Steve Whitmore, chief spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of scores of sheriff’s departments statewide that would be tapped for the transfers. He says L.A. County is still reeling from $128 million in budget cuts that have resulted in the closing of several prison facilities, leaving open about 5,000 empty beds because there is no staff.

Sheriff Lee Baca said publicly on May 23, the day of the Supreme Court ruling, that under Brown’s plan, more than a third of the state’s 33,000 prisoners would be relocated to L.A. County.

L.A. sheriff: Show me the money

“We may be the one county that can’t take that kind of influx,” he said on KCRW’s “To the Point” radio show. Currently, county jails hold about 14,000 inmates, down from a high of 22,000 a few years ago.

“It all boils down to how to pay the $27,000 annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner,” Sheriff Baca said. “I believe the governor knows this, and [the Department of Corrections] knows this, and we are working closely with them so we can get that money.”

Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says other options are available that include electronic surveillance and home detention.

But California’s goal “is not to release inmates at all,” says state corrections secretary Matthew Cate, answering concerns from dissenting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who warned, “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order” and from (separately dissenting) Justice Samuel Alito, who added, “the court’s majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California.”

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