As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Assembly Readies Prison Vote; Will Senate Fight Back Against Gutted "Reform"?

We've heard this one before, but the Assembly will apparently vote on a prison "reform" package today, one that does not meet the $1.2 billion in cuts to the overall prison budget the Assembly supported in July, and which excises the sentencing commission that would actually get to the root cause of the overcrowding crisis by reining in 30 years of expanded sentences from the Legislature. This makes manly tough guy Alberto Torrico very proud, but the Senate may not go along with it, if this SacBee report is any indication:

If the Assembly approves the plan as expected Monday, Steinberg will withhold concurrence in the Senate until several prison-related issues are settled.

"We're going to wait for a package that includes reform and gets to the budget number that we need," Steinberg said.

Steinberg wants the Assembly to act on creating a commission to overhaul sentencing guidelines and for the lower house to adopt an alternative custody program that could release, with electronic monitoring, some nonviolent offenders who are aged or infirm, or whose sentences expire in less than a year.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the Senate-passed plan, which contains both the sentencing commission and the alternative custody proposals.

The Assembly plan is a parole reform plan. That's worthwhile and needed, but it's not a long-range plan that will prevent the Legislature or a federal court from having to make the same decisions about early release 10 years down the road. It's also not a short-range plan, as it cuts $220 million less from the budget than is required and leaves that hole to be dealt with later - with cuts to what? Education? Health care? Maybe the Assembly can explain where they would cut in order to keep the terminally ill or blind people with one leg locked up and on the public dole.

It's a sad commentary that the Department of Corrections is more committed to advancing reform than the State Assembly.

Last Thursday, the CDCR announced it would close the largest youth prison in California, diverting young offenders to local facilities. This is one of the real reforms our coalition has called for to improve public safety and end wasteful prison spending. As part of the People’s Budget Fix, we have proposed keeping young offenders at the local level, closing all six of the costly and ineffective youth prisons, and diverting half of the budget currently spent on these prisons to local programs. If fully implemented, this reform would save $200 million a year.

Closing the largest youth prison is an excellent start which will save $30-40 million by the CDCR’s estimate. But we’ll need to do more if we’re going to come up with $1.2 billion in savings. The need for action could not be more urgent: we must find those savings in the Corrections’ budget to avoid more draconian cuts to education, health care and other public safety programs like domestic violence shelters and drug treatment programs.

Moreover, most Californians agree we need to cut wasteful prison spending. Polls show that most Californians think we should cut the Corrections budget and we should protect funding for education. Most Californians also agree that prison should be reserved for violent offenders, not people who commit petty offenses.

Yet, the Assembly cannot agree on what seems like common sense to the rest of us: people who commit low-level crimes like petty theft and simple drug possession should be punished on the local level, not in prison cells at a cost of nearly $50,000 per person per year. It shocks the conscience that Assembly Members were willing to vote for billions of dollars of cuts to education—the most important program to average Californians—but are afraid to cut wasteful prison spending by even a fraction of that.

Interestingly enough, Noreen Evans, the Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, wrote an impassioned piece arguing in favor of the Senate's prison package. As part of the Assembly leadership, she's likely to fall in line today. But she recognizes that the political considerations driving this debate are pretty outrageous. It's hard to argue with Dan Walters' assessment that this episode shows how nobody in the legislature, on either side of the aisle, has earned much of a right to object to the howls and disapprobation from throughout the state. The Senate could lead the way, at least on this issue, and force the Assembly wobblers, terrified of their own voters, to knuckle under.

Stay tuned.

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