Don't Expect A Broken Government To Yield An Unbroken Result
So the modest prison reform deal between legislative leaders and the Governor stalled out in the Assembly last night, and the chamber adjourned for the weekend. Not enough Democrats could be convinced to support the deal, particularly the ones with designs on statewide office or in perceived swing districts.
Let's explain right away what this says about the broken legislative process in Sacramento. It's infuriating that the bill was rushed to the floor without the votes on the Assembly side and without any kind of education campaign to explain the stakes to the public. Federal judges will release 44,000 prisoners. We can either do it smartly or stupidly. There is no other choice.
We knew that $1.2 billion in prison budget cuts had to be allocated for a month. This plan was, in fact, pretty much in place for a month. Did anyone in leadership say a word about it? Did they whip their caucus? Did they explain that without this, a federal judge will use a potentially haphazard process to release prisoners without any reforms, and even if the legislature tries to shift the blame, THEY WILL BE BLAMED ANYWAY because citizens habitually view the legislature as the source of most of the state's troubles?
Instead, the debate gets ruled by Yacht Party misinformation:
Sen. John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, spoke in favor of shutting down some juvenile jails instead of freeing inmates since the population of younger offenders has dropped. "It's a shame we're doing this in such a hurry," he said.
And Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel, spoke out for cutting rehabilitation money rather than letting prisoners out. "The immediate safety of the public must take precedence," she said.
Not only does it do that (overcrowding has led to the lack of space for rehabilitation and treatment programs and the nation's highest recidivism rate, which leads to additional needless crime), but the package put together by the legislature WOULD do that. Schwarzenegger's line-item reductions as part of this deal would cut $180 million in rehab and treatment programs, which is completely insane. That said, the sentencing commission that would come to fruition in this bill is quite important, and those Democrats in the Assembly holding it up are rank cowards who don't have no belief in the value of their own ideas. Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod does:
Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod said, "Do you all live in a parallel world?" She said federal authorities that have found California prisons too overcrowded are going to use their power to release prisoners and that it would be preferable for the state to have control over that process.
"I trump each and everyone of you with children and grandchildren. And you know what? I'm not scared," she said, referring to several GOP senators' references to how they feared for their children's safety.
Still, in the end this is a process problem. The backroom dealmaking made by legislative leaders who have no sway over their caucuses leads to embarrassing results like this. The power of special interests leads to calculations that changes must be made in the dead of night, and the power of money in politics means that fear can rule over hope. Individual cowardly lawmakers in thrall to Tough On Crime thinking led us down this road, but a broken government certainly keeps us there. And it's not, as this shows, just about 2/3.
...I'm hearing that "Crime Victims United," a front group for the prison guard's union which has never received one donation from anyone else, claimed sex offenders would get early release despite being exempted specifically in the bill. They out and out lied, and would have done so in ads in lawmakers' districts. Crime Victims United should be investigated by the FPPC and disbanded. They're an astroturf group using fear and falsehoods to shield a protected class from having to give back their largesse from the state treasury. Ultimately, this is about cowardice on the part of lawmakers, but the influence of money plays a big role.