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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Prison Vote Tomorrow Includes Sentencing Commission

More details have emerged about the prison reform legislation both houses of the Legislature will take up tomorrow, and according to multiple sources, it will include a sentencing commission, a major victory for reformers if it passes.

Legislative Democrats will push a commission to create a new system for prison sentences as part of Democrats’ prison overhaul plan, which will be voted on the floor of both houses Thursday.

The commission, which has been pushed for by liberal Democrats for years, has been a major rift between Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in recent years. But changes made this week over who controls the commission seem to have the governor's OK [...]

Under a draft proposal circulating in the Capitol Wednesday, the new commission would be called the California Public Safety Commission. The panel would consist of 13 members, including the corrections secretary, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the state public defender. The governor would make eight appointments to the board. The chief justice would make the other two appointments, both of whom must be retired judges.

The bill calls for the commission to present a new set of parole and sentencing rules to the Legislature by June 1, 2012.

I don't really like the Governor controlling 8 of the 13 appointments, just for balance-of-power reasons. But if that's the price of support, and if it truly will make recommendations based on the law and the data, I can live with it. And remember, the commission wouldn't produce findings until June 2012. In the interim we will have a new Governor who could make alternate commission recommendations.

Most important, having a commission which is independent, and whose rules would have the force of law unless repealed by the legislature (a much more lasting solution than if they have to positively endorse them with a vote) does really change the game around sentencing in California. It may not work perfectly, but it could really make a difference, and the alternative is the legislature adding one sentencing increase after another as they have done for the last 30 years, and a prison system collapsing under its own weight, as the Governor said today.

Now, I don't agree with all the aspects of prison reform as laid out by the Governor and the Legislature (here's the bill). I think reducing funding for rehabilitation, educational and vocational training programs by $175 million, as called for in the part of the legislation the Governor will enact by line-item appropriation, is insane and completely counter-productive. And I don't see how lowering reimbursement rates for doctors and nurses operating in the prisons, at a time when prison health care is in the hands of a federal receiver, is even legal. But the sentencing commission is crucial enough, and some of the other reforms similarly salutary (like ending blanket parole supervision and concentrating on those with the most serious offenses, or increasing early release credits for those who meet rehabilitation milestones), that I have to accept at least what the Legislature is doing, if not the Governor (most of the bad stuff are in his line items).

The Legislature and Governor are splitting the work here to make the $524 million in cuts more palatable to potential "tough on crime" lawmakers wary of the vote. Greg Lucas thinks that Democrats may not have the votes in the Assembly.

There are 50 Democrats in the lower house. A bill reducing prison spending requires 41 votes. That allows Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, to give “passes” to nine of her members.

Certainly four Democrats Bass would allow not to vote on the bill are those targeted for defeat in 2010 by Republicans – the incumbents of Assembly Districts, 10, 15, 78 and 80.

They are, respectively: Alyson Huber of El Dorado Hills, Joan Buchanan of Alamo, Marty Block of San Diego and Mannie Perez of Coachella.

Certainly the three Assembly members running for Attorney General would want to be spared from having to vote for the bill. The Attorney General is commonly perceived as being California’s “Top Cop.”

They are: Ted Lieu of Torrance, Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara and Alberto Torrico of Fremont.

In June, Fresno Assemblyman Juan Arambula, a moderate Democrat, re-registered as an independent. In July, he voted with his former Democratic colleagues to close an estimated $24 billion hole in the budget. But whether that willingness extends to prison cuts that will release more parolees into his Central Valley district is uncertain.

Among other Democrats, casting a perceived “anti-public safety” vote would not be a popular in the districts of Cathleen Galgiani of Tracy and Anna Caballero of Salinas.

The governor holds little or no sway with Assembly Republicans so the odds are against him convincing any GOP lawmakers to vote for the bill. That leaves Speaker Bass with a math problem.

We MUST get enough of these Assemblymembers to vote for any bill with a sentencing commission. Gloria Romero's sentencing commission bill in 2007, which was better, died in the Assembly, with help from many of these people. If Karen Bass can knuckle down on her caucus to vote for disastrous cuts to the social safety net, she can find enough to pass the widest-reaching reform package in prisons in 30 years. If you're in the districts of any of these lawmakers, contact them NOW and tell them to vote Yes on AB 14 3X.

Alyson Huber (AD-10) (Calitics raised a fair bit of money for her)
Joan Buchanan (AD-15) (Does she want to win a liberal primary for Congress?)
Marty Block (AD-78)
Manuel Perez (AD-80) (Calitics raised a fair bit of money for him)
Ted Lieu (AD-53)
Pedro Nava (AD-35)
Alberto Torrico (AD-20)
Cathleen Galgiani (AD-17)
Anna Caballero (AD-28)

They don't have to give in to the Tough on Crime mentality which has destroyed our prison system. They can look toward a better future, with sensible policy that saves money and makes Californians safer.

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