Monday, August 31, 2009

Dueling inmate plans set up spat in California

California's Assembly is setting up a clash with the Senate over sweeping changes to the state's criminal justice system in the two weeks before their planned Sept. 11 adjournment.

The Assembly was scheduled to take up a scaled down plan to address the state's overcrowded prisons Monday. If the Assembly plan passes, it would still leave California about $220 million short and with 10,000 inmates too many to meet its goals.

The Assembly's rejection of a broader plan passed by the Senate this month reflects a split between Democrats who control both legislative chambers.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento said he won't take up the plan negotiated by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass of Los Angeles unless the Assembly passes additional measures already approved by senators.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the fracas last week, praising senators while criticizing assembly members for balking at trimming $1.2 billion from prisons after they earlier cut $10 billion from education.

"They don't have the guts now to make those decisions, because they are now more worried about safe seats than safe streets," he said in a conversation with the founders of Twitter at the company's San Francisco headquarters.

Senators backed Schwarzenegger's plan to reduce the prison population by about 27,000 inmates the first year and fill a $1.2 billion budget hole left over from the budget compromise he signed last month to bridge the state's massive deficit.

Steps included making some offenders ineligible for prison by reducing sentences for certain property crimes and allowing home detention with electronic monitoring for thousands of inmates who are over age 60, are medically incapacitated, or have less than 12 months left to serve.

Bass said neither of those provisions has enough support among Democrats to pass in her chamber because of objections from law enforcement organizations.

She stripped them out of the package and eliminated a powerful independent commission that would have recommended changes to the state's convoluted sentencing laws. She left in measures to free inmates earlier if they complete rehabilitation programs and reduce supervision for thousands of parolees, making it more difficult to send them back to prison for violations.

"We seem to have two versions of the Democrat party on law enforcement reform," said California State Sheriffs' Association legislative director Nick Warner, who has been trying to broker a compromise. "This is interesting because it's usually Republicans and Democrats far apart. This is Democrats and Democrats being far apart."

Democrats can pass the majority vote bills without Republican votes.

The bill passed the Senate without a vote to spare, but Bass said the dynamics are different in the Assembly because so many members face elections next year. They include three Democrats running for attorney general - Ted Lieu of Torrance, Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara and Alberto Torrico of Fremont - whose votes on a prison package could be used by opponents to portray them as soft on crime.

Bass said the emotion runs deeper than politics.

"When you are talking about crime, corrections, it's a visceral issue. What you're going to do is you're going to think of the latest homicide that happened," she said while postponing an earlier Assembly vote.

Her new plan would leave behind bars about 10,000 inmates who would be released under the Senate plan, creating a $220 million budget hole.

"We grasp the politics of the situation, but we're here to do a job and we're going to be short a couple hundred million dollars in balancing our budget. I hope the Assembly has some suggestions," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee.

The difference would be made up by closing a juvenile prison and in other areas of the budget, said Bass spokeswoman Shannon Murphy.

The administration had said its plan would also come close to meeting, over two years, a demand earlier this year by a special panel of federal judges that the state reduce the inmate population by 40,000.

"We've been playing with fire with the courts too long to allow us to have our knees buckle under us at this point," said Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat from Los Angeles who voted for the Senate plan.


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