Assembly Postpones Prison Reform Debate For Second Time

Posted on 25 August 2009

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By Dan Aiello
California Progress Report

In a statement released just 30 minutes before the State Assembly was scheduled to resume its debate over Prison Reform legislation, Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) announced its postponement, citing “continuing” negotiations.

““Work is moving forward on a revised plan to increase public safety, improve the effectiveness of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and reduce state budget costs,” read Bass’ statement. “There were a number of calls and meetings throughout the weekend with various stakeholders, including law enforcement. Those conversations are continuing.”

Last Thursday, the Assembly balked at the reform legislation package narrowly approved by the Senate, 21-19. Bass met with Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday before announcing she would amend the Senate legislation, stripping it of the most controversial of the measures.

The plan, which is a holdover from the recent budget agreement, seeks to reduce the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget by $1.2 billion dollars over the next 10 months by reducing the state’s inmate population, by 27,300.

California's inmate population has steadily expanded under California’s “three strikes” law, increasing the cost of incarceration to the state.

The average yearly cost to the state to house an inmate is more than $31,000. The average annual cost to manage a parolee is more than $3,400, according to the CDCR Budget.

According to Bass spokeswoman Shannon Murphy, the Speaker spent Monday meeting with Steinberg, legislators and law enforcement interest groups that currently oppose the cost-cutting plan.

Murphy said today’s postponement was necessary in order to rewrite the language of the bill. “We’re working on the language right now,” Murphy told California Progress Report. Murphy confirmed the legislation is not dead, stating the Assembly “will absolutely” vote on the legislation before the end of session.

Murphy would not confirm whether or not the Speaker believed Monday she had the votes needed to pass the legislation.

The plan requires 41 votes to pass. Without Republican support, Bass will need to garner 41 of the Assembly’s 49 Democrats.

It has been widely reported that the political aspirations of 11 current Democratic Assembly members for higher office made it impossible for Bass to find the votes needed to pass the Senate plan.

Republican Senator Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) illustrated why the 11 Democrats seeking statewide office next year might be concerned about voting for the legislation when he publicly blasted the plan as a “get out of jail free card,” during last week's Senate debate.

Harman and other Republicans legislators have termed components of the legislation “early release,” and “soft on crime,” framing the issue as one of crime and punishment and not cost-savings and budget-related, according to a Sacramento Bee story that compared the anti-prison reform strategy to that of George H.W. Bush who successfully used an early release prisoner, Willie Horton, who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough, to portray his Democratic opponent as soft on crime.

Components of the Senate-passed legislation allowed for sentence reduction by commission for some crimes while reducing other criminal activity from felony to misdemeanor as a way to reduce the number of inmates housed by the state.

Bass gave no specifics on when the Assembly would vote on the issue.

“When we arrive at a responsible plan that can earn the support of the majority of the Assembly and makes sense to the people of California, we will take that bill up on the Assembly floor,” read Bass’ statement.

Here are the components of the package passed by the Senate, compiled by the Sacramento Bee:

• Place lower-risk offenders in alternative custody, such as house arrest with GPS monitoring. Would include elderly and medically infirm inmates. Estimated inmates affected: 6,300.

• Change some property crimes to misdemeanors, and increase the monetary threshold at which the crime becomes a felony. Estimated inmates affected: 5,600.

• Focus parole supervision on high-risk offenders and use GPS to supervise parolees who commit certain violations instead of returning them to prison. Estimated inmates affected: 5,300.

• Allow inmates enrolled in educational rehabilitation programs to earn additional credits toward their sentences. Increase credits for good behavior. Estimated inmates affected: 1,600.

• The governor would commute the sentences of illegal immigrants who are subject to deportation upon release, starting with lowest-level felonies. Estimated inmates affected: Up to 8,500.

The plan also included an unpaid commission that would have power to re-write some state sentencing laws.

Of these components, the Assembly plan will likely eliminate “Alternative Custody,” which drew much of the criticism by opponents who considered the house arrest measure for low-risk and end of sentence inmates, “early release.” The measure would have reduced inmate population by 6,300, saving the state approximately $195 million dollars.

The revised legislation will also likely lessen the authority of the proposed sentencing commission, stripping it of the power to rewrite sentencing guidelines without the approval of the legislature, another point of contention for Assembly opponents of the Senate-passed plan.

The Assembly also would restore at least some of the criminal statute definitions and sentencing guidelines proposed for reduction in the Senate-passed bill. These reductions would have allowed for shorter sentences for non-violent crimes, reducing inmate population.