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

Monday, August 24, 2009

No Vote Yet On Prison Reform

Jim Sanders reports that the Assembly will not hold a vote on a prison reform package today, as legislative leaders and law enforcement groups huddle to reach a compromise. Yes, law enforcement groups, which should read lobbyists. They hold a veto over processes like this.

I'm amazed by how any lawmaker could possibly view a vote like this on prison reform as a choice. Federal judges have affirmatively ruled that California must cut its prison population by 44,000 inmates, and submit a plan to do so by next month. The judges charged with oversight on the prison system have spoken unanimously on this subject and given the state years to work out the issue. If lawmakers vote this down, the population will get reduced ANYWAY, and in all likelihood in a far more randomized and less considered fashion. You would think that the legislature would want a bit more say in the matter, especially since any bad outcome arising from early release will be blamed on them anyway, since that's just the default reaction of most people in this state.

Furthermore, the legislature has already earmarked $1.2 billion in cuts to the prison budget. That was affirmed by a majority in both chambers - I believe, a 2/3 majority - and signed into law by the Governor. This vote is not optional. It's required as a function of last month's budget vote. Bills with compromises that cut less money or lead to the reduction of less of the population are really useless, because eventually, that money will need to be cut and those prisoners released. Assembly Democrats afraid of special interests are living in a fantasy world.

And we really are talking about fear.

In the Assembly, nearly 40% of Democrats (19) are running for another office. Most are fearful of being branded by campaign opponents as "soft on crime" if they vote for, say, early release from prison of even decrepit old blind men.

That's why a plan by Democratic leaders and the governor to reduce the prison population by 27,300 inmates this year and save $525 million passed the Senate 21 to 19 last week, but stalled in the skittish Assembly. No Republican supported the bill, but none was needed because it required only a majority vote to pass.

An amended, watered-down measure may be debated on the Assembly floor today. It will retain the feature Schwarzenegger deems most important: an overhaul of the parole system by focusing on the riskiest parolees and paying little attention to the rest, resulting in fewer ex-cons being returned to prison for minor violations.

All this can be worked out and space freed up in the barracks and gyms. Better to do it now than after the predictable prison blowup.

As for what is subject to change in that amended plan, here's a good rundown. Most of it is nibbling around the edges - adding back a couple crimes as felonies, lowering the dollar threshold for grand theft, changing the months' worth of sentencing credits for rehabilitation and vocational training from 6 to 4 - but these are the big ones:

Eliminate a proposal that would allow the release of up to 6,300 "lower-risk" inmates -- under house arrest with electronic monitoring -- who are medically infirm, aged, or serving the final 12 months of their sentence.

Alter the structure of a proposed sentencing commission that would have broad powers to rewrite sentencing guidelines.

The Assembly version would raise the commission's voting members from 13 to 14. It also would grant law enforcement more clout both by adding a representative from rank-and-file and by requiring that any actions of the commission by approved by two law enforcement members. A requirement that an ex-felon receive a nonvoting seat would be eliminated.

It's truly amazing the law enforcement, under this plan, would literally hold a veto over statutory considerations like sentencing. I believe that plenty of members of the law enforcement community actually understand that they can be smarter on crime, keep people safe and save the state money. But that's just a hijack over the process.

The bottom line is this - we spend more than any state except Michigan on prisons in terms of a percentage of the overall budget, and federal judges have ordered a reduction in inmates. Regardless of special interests or anything else, something's gotta give.

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